Stress – what is it and how do we manage it?
Stress is a physical expression of our “Fight or Flight” survival mechanism. When the human mind perceives a threatening situation it will trigger a stress response, which prepares us to confront or flee a possible danger. This is useful for immediate danger but unfortunately the stress response is also triggered by the way we process tense situations where physical action is not an option, such as an unreasonable boss, heavy traffic, relationship, or financial problems.
Two types of stress
- Acute – Acute stress prepares us for“fight or flight”and is generally short-term.
- Chronic – Chronic stress is long term and is the main cause of stress-related health problems.
Stress causes chemical changes in the body that, left unchecked, can have negative effects on both mental and physical health. High levels of stress contribute to health issues as diverse as depression, anxiety, insomnia, heart disease, skin disorders, headaches, gut and bowel issues.
Acute Stress in Detail
Acute stress is a short-term response by the body’s sympathetic nervous system. The response can last for a few minutes or a few weeks. During an acute stress response, the adrenal medulla (part of the adrenal glands, two small glands located on top of each kidney) begins to release catecholamine hormones (including adrenaline and noradrenaline). In all, over seventeen different hormones are released during an acute stress response.
- blood sugar levels rise
- additionalred blood cells are released (to carry extra oxygen)
- peripheral blood vesselsconstrict
- pulse quickens
- blood pressure rises
- digestion stops
Chronic Stress in Detail
Chronic stress occurs when continuous acute stress responses keep the body on alert continuously,
negatively affecting health. Normally we balance between “fight and flight” and “rest and digest” modes. Ongoing stress causes the hypothalamus and pituitary gland (portions of the brain) to release a chemical known as ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone). ACTH, known as the “stress hormone” stimulates the adrenal gland to produce and release cortisol.
Cortisol is one of the hormones associated with waking and sleeping. Levels of cortisol naturally fluctuate during the day. Cortisol levels are highest in the morning and lowest at night. Higher levels of cortisol in the morning help us wake up. When chronic stress stimulates cortisol production, the daily cycle of cortisol levels is disrupted. High levels of cortisol may occur at night which can result in insomnia.
Stress is a useful mechanism of the body, designed to protect us. It is not necessarily triggered by actual circumstances, but rather by the way our mind perceives a situation. Usually, the body will fluctuate between acute stress and a relaxed state. When the body is in chronic stress it loses the ability to shift out of the stress state naturally.
The first step to managing stress is to recognize when you are in a state of stress, and then it is important to engage tools to correct your balance, allowing the body to release from sympathetic dominance (fight and flight) by first engaging the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). This can be done through a combination of mind-based techniques including mindful meditation, breath work and emotional processing. Once we have released the mind, we can engage physical health and fitness techniques to fully bring the mind and body into balance.
The best way to manage stress is to learn tools and techniques in life to reduce chances of reaching a chronic stress state, and that will minimize and manage acute stress responses in your everyday life.
We run mind-based stress management courses. Click here for details of our upcoming course dates.