Every one experiences difficult, challenging situations in their life, these can be in the form of isolated incidents like being stuck in traffic and running late for an appointment, or as continuous events over a prolonged period of time like juggling the challenges of parenting with a busy working life.
The events themselves are only the trigger, how we perceive and react to them is what can make us feel stressed. Situations that stress one person may have absolutely no effect on another. The reaction is really determined by the individual’s perception. In other words the event triggers the thoughts which manifest the feelings and so the cycle begins. Sadly for many people, stress is so common that it has become a way of life to them.
Most people are all too familiar with the symptoms of stress like loss or increase of appetite, headaches, fatigue, forgetfulness, irritability, general aches and pains…etc, but there is less awareness of what’s actually happening in the body to cause these symptoms.
Stress induces the fight or flight reaction, this is the body’s alarm system which prompts the adrenal glands, to release a surge of hormones, namely adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones can be very useful in short bursts when faced with a challenging situation, as they can enhance performance under pressure and motivate you to do your best.
Small increases can;
- Induce a quick burst of energy through increasing blood and glucose availability to muscle.
- Heighten alertness and memory function through increased glucose delivery to brain
Role of the Brain
When you encounter what you perceive to be a threat or challenge, this information is relayed to the hypothalamus, of the brain, which in turn then communicates with the adrenal glands and sets off the “alarm system” in the body. This is achieved through a combination of nerve and hormonal signals.
Chronic stress is when the “alarm system” is switched on over a long period of time and this can lead to reduced quality of life and more seriously be detrimental to your health and well being due to;
- Impaired cognitive performance ie difficulty in performing tasks which require thought
- Suppressed thyroid function
- Blood sugar imbalances
- Decreased bone density
- Raised blood pressure
Fig 1 Simplified overview of relationship between brain and adrenal glands
What can be done to manage stress?
- Firstly it is up to you to realise and accept the role you play in creating or maintaining it, this is very important, as failure to do so will result in your stress levels remaining out with your control. The ultimate aim is to achieve a balanced life with time for work, pleasure, family and fun and also to build resilience to what you perceive to be stressful situations
- Start a “stress” journal – Take a note of what the event was, what were your thoughts, how did you feel as a result, what did you do about it? This can help identify stressors and allow you to develop coping mechanisms.
- Physical Activities – Exercise has been shown to boost the production of natural “feel good” factors like endorphins, so you can be distracted from your worries and feel mentally better. It also aids with sleep.
- Meditation –emotional benefits include; – Gaining a new perspective on perceived stressful situations – Heightening self-awareness – Focusing on the present and future – Reducing negative emotions
- Communication – meet up with friends or family who have a positive effect on your mood (try and avoid those who don’t)
- Make Healthy food choices – Avoid high Sugar foods and alcohol. These can stimulate adrenaline production and therefore enhance the feelings of stress. Drinking plenty of water is encouraged as it hydrates the body and the brain. Avoid excessive salt as this can lead to increased blood pressure
- Aim to laugh more – Laughter can provide a physical and emotional release. It exercises muscles and induces endorphin release. If you are having a right good belly laugh then you are being distracted from what made you feel stressed.
These are just a few ideas to try, there are many more (too extensive a list to include here). Fortunately there are now lots of useful resources available online with further information on stress and advice on how best to deal with it. The most important thing to remember is that it can be beaten.