co-written by Rick Olazabal, BSc, BN
Got a deadline coming up? Have an early flight, train, bus to catch? Do you have to drop off your kids before work? Work has been laying off fellow colleagues? Bills are piling up? Awaiting results from a medical check-up? Got exams coming up? Your boyfriend or girlfriend hasn’t returned that text?
The list goes on. The average person gets no recognition for the amount of stress he or she has to endure…
It is very noble of you if you to think, “well, it could be worse, at least I do not live in famine, or in a war-ridden nation” or “at least I have my health”. I wish to stop for a moment and commend you. I wish to acknowledge your daily struggle—our struggle. In the past, I’ve heard the facetious reference “first-world problems”. It is true that most of us reading this probably never go to bed hungry; nor you have to worry about some of the horrendous experiences some people have to endure, but all forms of stress ultimately affects us the same way—what really differs is the how it affects us—but the end result is usually a toll on your health. This article briefly explores the implications of stress and what can be done to alleviate them.
What are stressors?
A stressors is any external stimulus that causes the organism to react to it. These can be chemical stressors (e.g. ammonia), physical (e.g. injury), biological (e.g. infection), environmental conditions (e.g. climate change), psychosocial, etc. We are particularly familiar with psychosocial stressors—that is, everyday things we have to deal with—and even though we don’t call them “stressors”, we know that some chemicals are serious irritants—take chlorine in a pool, for example. But while those stressors tend to be more external, there are also internal implications. Changes in the oxygenation, levels of blood sugar, inflammation (and so on) in your body leads to physiologic stress.
If stress is bad, why do we stress?
Stress isn’t always bad. Sometimes stress is merely a signal that we need to change something for our own survival or wellbeing. Stress tells us that something isn’t ideal or optimal; consider it a warning bell. Short-term stress gives you the “oomph” you may need to get the ball rolling on something. For example, if you’re stressing about an exam or an interview, maybe it’s because you need to study or practice your presentation skills—if you study or practice more, you may not be as stressed. Or, if you’re stressed out about going on a trip somewhere you’re not familiar with, it’s because from an evolutionary perspective anything unknown was a threat.
Surely, if you go back over 150,000 years ago there were more threats than there are around today. Stress, in small amounts, may be good. Now, if you’re very stressed out, it can surely affect your digestion, your sleep, and your performance. Stress relieving techniques may be useful, and we’ll discuss some of them below. In short, some stress in small doses can be beneficial. Conversely, long term (chronic) stress is associated with many diseases.
How does stress cause disease?
Not surprisingly, longstanding stress—actual or perceived—can lead to physiologic changes in the body. Because stressors lead to a reaction, the body’s reaction to stress can take my forms. Take for example, if you were to be confronted by a tiger, your body’s reaction might be to run as fast as you can. For your body to do this, your eyes send the visual signal to the brain, which has to make an immediate life-or-death choice. If the brain decides to tell the body to run for it, it must signal your muscles; your muscles then need more oxygen and thus more blood, so the heart needs to be involved, and the lungs for breathing. For the heart to pump more blood, the brain signals the adrenal glands to produce more adrenaline, and so on. Adrenaline goes up, and so does cortisol.
Now, short stress can be lifesaving—or at least that’s how we evolved—but nowadays we’re not running away from tiger; we’re merely running away from our daily problems. The brain does not know the difference. Longstanding stress leads to higher levels of stress hormones, which—when out of balance—can lead to inflammation, oxidative stress, and thus, chronic disease. All of this coupled with bad eating habits, sedentary lifestyle, smoking and you have the perfect recipe for disaster.
What can be done to help:
This section will focus on managing what I’m labeling as psychosocial stress: that is, the stressors of daily living. In previous articles we have discussed the importance of daily exercise, and so I won’t spend much time on it again, but I must reiterate its importance.
- Yoga, meditation, walking in nature have all been shown to reduce stress, lower blood pressure, alleviate headaches, and allow you to relax.
- Picking up a hobby of something you love helps with this too! It’s no wonder adult colouring books are a big hit; we all loved them as kids!
- Be kind to yourself: give yourself time to unwind. You deserve at least 30 mins a day to reflect on the good things and to enjoy yourself. Even on the most stressful of days something good would surely make you happy. Notice how the focus is on the positive and not on the negative.
- Start a diary if you need to vent, but train your brain to steer away from becoming susceptible to daily stressors—in other words, rise above it all.
- Socialize with people whose company you enjoy, and avoid surrounding by those who don’t add value to your life.
Making gradual changes towards the things you love will add quality to your life and your stress will go down. If you really need something to help manage the storm, but aren’t too keen on pills, I recommend speaking with a licensed naturopathic doctors on your options. Sometimes it’s not about taking something, but about assessing obstacles to cure—and let’s not forget that this may include rectifying nutritional deficiencies.
Plants known to help with stress include rhodiola, passion flower, lavender, ashwghanda, chamomile, and so much more! Also, don’t forget to inquire about important minerals and vitamins that are so vital in helping the body manage all forms of stress: vitamins A, C, D, E, B (all of them!), minerals like zinc, selenium, iron, and iodine.