Stressful Versus Stress Less
People often mistake stress as an emotion. And I assume you might also raise your eyebrow. When someone asks you how you’re feeling, you will often say your stressed. But in fact, stress is a physiological change as a result of certain emotions. For example, if you are worrying (the emotion) about how you’re going to cope in a confined space or scared that you might have contracted Covid-19, your body is experiencing stress.
Stress is becoming more common within the workplace, school and society. In education, straight A's is almost the standard for many students and if you aren’t the top of the food chain at your company with a loving family and friends, then you’re failing. On top this, because of more free time and social media, we have more time to focus on ourselves and we talk about ourselves more. Because our sense of self is enhanced, we are under more pressure to improve ourselves. Great for our society, but dangerous for our health.
What is stress?
Stress often appears in the form of physical sensations such as neck and shoulder tension, headaches and increased heart rate and each of these are because of our ancestors survival mechanisms. For example, the fight or flight response. Based on our emotions of anger, which prepared our ancestors to fight wild animals or fear, which prepared our ancestors to run away, our heart beat faster so that more blood rushes to our legs, we sweat to keep our body temperature lower and we even get pains in our stomach for the requirement of losing excess body weight (yes that is what you’re thinking). Now the problem with chronic stress is that it keeps the fight or flight button on continuously and this then has an effect on our physical health.
In the body, these physical sensations happen because of the release of a hormones known as cortisol, epinephrine (what we understand as adrenaline) and nonepinephrine, which are released from the adrenal gland on the top of our kidneys. This is quickly released and the body prepares to deal with whatever is causing the stress. The problem is that when this is continuously being released, this has a long term effect on our physical health. For example, it impacts our sleep, it increases our likelihood of weight gain and it increases the risk of heart disease, dementia and diabetes.
Why stress is harmful?
When our body needs energy, when exercising for example, adrenaline is active, which then releases free fatty acids into the blood stream. These are then broken down so that we can have more energy to exercise. However, when we are stressed, these fatty acids are still released and because the energy is not needed, the fatty acids attach to arteries and this causes a build up. This can prevent natural blood flow and this is why stress is associated with heart disease and strokes. On top of this, the continuous release of continuous stress hormones then puts the amygdala (the fear centre of the brain) on overdrive and this starts damaging its nearby brain area, the hippocampus, which is responsible for the inhibition of stress hormone release. This then starts impacting the connections and development of new brain cells, which eventually leads to shrinking of the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for organisation, focus and decision making. These damages lead to difficulties in concentration, memory and learning new information.
When this is happening, the brain then calls the brain cells in our gut for help, which can then lead to abnormal changes in the microbiota, increased risk of Irritable Bowel Syndrome and reduced abilities to digest food (which leads to weight gain). It also impacts our behaviours. For example, if you are always stressed, you’re going to turn to comfort foods high in sugar and unhealthy fats and there is actually a scientific explanation behind this. Increases in cortisol actually increases our appetite. Therefore, your diet is going to be worse and this will lead to weight gain. But what is probably most detrimental is the impact it has on our immune system.
Stress also alters the immune system. It firstly reduces its ability to fight against infections and diseases and it then reduces the speed of recovery. It also has an impact on the length of our telomeres, which have been found to predict how long we live. Still not convinced about the dangers of stress? Well let me give you my closing evidence. Stress has also been found to predict acne, hair loss and sexual dysfunction. Now I’ve got your attention.
When is stress important?
However, stress isn’t all bad. It’s actually important at times. Eustress is a level of stress that pushes you to become motivated and achieve goals. This is important. We want to be in a situation that pushes us (eustress) but not to the extent that we feel incompetent (stress). Therefore, we don’t want to avoid stress, but we don't want to be chronically stressed. It’s a balancing act.
Factors that lead to stress
Dr. Malie Coyne advocates for the importance of infant mental health playing a role in stress. In the first three years, a child will cry when they need help and this releases cortisol. If this action is responded to, the cortisol levels plateau but if there is no soothing, then this causes cortisol levels to be off cue as the child grows older. This has also been demonstrated in a mouse study that found the amount of nurture a mother gave its child determined the child mouse’s cortisol sensitivity. This happened because the nurtured mouse developed more cortisol receptors, which reduces the level of cortisol in the body. A study from the University of Cambridge found that those who commute for over 30 minutes are more likely to experience higher levels of stress. On top of this, social evaluation, deadlines and presentations have all been found to cause stress. However, what is probably most stress inducing is how we interpret stressful situations.
How to manage stress
However, as mentioned above, we now live in a world of stress and it’s impossible to avoid stress. Therefore, rather than trying to control the unpredictable situations that cause stress, we need to manage how we interpret and think about these situations. But surely that sounds too easy to be true? In 2012, a study by Keller and colleagues looked at 30,000 Americans over 8 years and they asked them how stressed they were and if they saw the stress as unhelpful to their death. Down the line, they tracked how many people died and they found that 43% who stated that they had high levels of stress increased their risk for dying. However, this was only true for those who believed that stress was harmful for their health. On the other hand, regardless of how stressed they were, those who did not see stress as harmful to their health did not have an increased likelihood of dying. How you interpret stress really matters! Lucky for you, there are several earlier posts on cognitive behavioural therapy about how to do this. You then combine this with common stress relievers such as meditation and exercise and you’’ll start to manage stress rather than stress managing you.
In conclusion, stress is something that is likely to skyrocket in the coming weeks as we are trapped in our homes with our family while being bombarded with negative news stories. If you want some help to get through this, if you want to be healthier and if you want to live longer, understand what stress is and then combat against it. Understanding stress leads to de-stress. Ignoring it leads to distress. Know the difference. Yours Sincerely, The Motus Movement.