co-written by Rick Olazabal, BSc, BN
When we speak of different types of stress we normally assume physical stress vs. emotional or psychological stress. I challenge this notion.
Stress is the body’s natural instinct to defend itself despite of what’s triggering it…
Sudden (or acute) stress can be very beneficial because it makes you more alert, focused and allows you to solve problems with more clarity. This is true of giving a presentation in front of a group of people, but it can also be lifesaving in a potential emergency.
Conversely, longstanding stress can have devastating effects. Different individuals react to stress differently. Some people have high stress threshold and/or “better” stress-coping mechanisms. The things that can be stressful to one person, may fill someone else with joy. There are many factors leading to stress, and these are often linked to changes. For example, being laid off, a child leaving home, the death of a family member, divorce, an illness or injury, money problems.
However, not all changes have to be negative, many positive things can result in stress. For example, moving to a new home, a job promotion, having a new baby, competing in a major sports event, starting university or college, etc. This article will briefly explore different manifestations of stress and provide some management options.
What is stress?
The formal definition of stress is that it’s a “state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances”. While this captures the essence in charming terms, it really translates into your body’s response to a real or perceived threat. Such a response is automatic—you usually can’t really control it—and it is meant to get you out of danger. This is the product of evolution and it is deeply ingrained in our genes. As species evolved, they had to survive the many things that threatened their lives.
While we humans are no longer in threat of being eaten by a sabre-tooth tiger (classical depiction of what we seem to correlate with human evolution, I know, so just humour me), other threats are perceived just as bad. Unfortunately, our brain does not actually distinguish between stressors; the end results is the same: a threat is perceived, your brain acts to try to save you.
In doing so, it sends a signal to your adrenals to pump out adrenaline and cortisol, which in turn makes your heart beat faster, gets your muscles ready for the fight or flight response, makes your pupils dilate (to receive more light and visual information), and take on whatever it is that’s coming.
In short, when the threat is sudden, you can appreciate how stress can benefit you. On the flip side, if this goes on for a long period of time, your immune system gets suppressed, your energy plummets, you may feel drained, ironically, your sleep may be affected, your muscles can feel sore, and your anxiety can soar—pardon the pun.
What are the different manifestations of stress?
As stated earlier, we tend to separate stress into physical, emotional and/or psychological stress. We like to categorize things in order to understand them better. However, I challenged that notion of breaking down stress into three tiers because at the end of the day we can agree that the body and the mind are inseparable entities. Our brain’s response to any sort of stress is ultimately pretty much the same. With that said, there are many different manifestations of stress (or symptoms of stress). This include, but may not be limited to:
- Back, neck and muscular pain
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Feeling tired
- High blood pressure
- Shortness of breath
- Trouble sleeping
- Upset stomach
- Weight gain or loss
What can be done to help manage stress?
First thing is first, take a deep breath, assess the severity of your stress and seek help, accordingly. It is important to remember not worrying about things you can’t control. This is easier said than done, but practice makes perfect; make a habit of this. It is also recommended by the Canadian Mental Health Association to:
- prepare as best you can for events you know may be stressful;
- try to think of change as a positive challenge, not a threat;
- work to resolve conflicts with other people;
- ask for help when you need it;
- set realistic goals at home and at work;
- exercise regularly;
- eat well-balanced meals and get enough sleep;
- use deep breathing, meditation, and other relaxation techniques;
- set aside time to do things you enjoy!
Speaking with a counsellor or psychotherapist may be very helpful. Engaging in activities like yoga, regular walking (running or swimming) is known to have great effects. Acupuncture is known to be wonderful for muscular tension and other symptoms of stress.
If you are interested in herbal remedies, there are several options you may explore with the help of a qualified practitioner. These may include passion flower (Passiflora incarnata), oats (Avena sativa), ashwaganda (Withania somnifera), rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea), St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perfoliatum—be aware that this herb interacts with many medications) and many others. Speak with a licensed naturopathic doctor for a comprehensive, individualized protocol to your stress management that is both safe and effective.