“Stress is not a state of mind… it’s measurable and dangerous, and humans can’t seem to find their off-switch.”
These words of warning come from renowned author and award-winning neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky in the documentary Stress: Portrait of a Killer.
This film was jointly produced by National Geographic and Stanford University where Dr. Sapolsky is a professor and scholar, to show us just how dangerous prolonged stress can be.
As we evolved, the stress response of flight or fight, saved our lives by enabling us to run from predators or take down prey.
But today, we are turning on the same “life-saving” reaction to cope with underhanded workmates, deadlines, difficult bosses, and traffic jams—and have a hard time turning it off.
Constantly being in a stress response may have you marinating in corrosive hormones around the clock.
It is scary the impact stress has on your body, it can shrink your brain, add fat to your belly, and even unravel your chromosomes. Understanding how stress works can help you figure out ways to combat it and reduce its negative impacts on your health.
Understanding how stress works can help you figure out ways to combat it and reduce its negative impacts on your health.
The problem is that we have essentially become addicted to stress.
For those who no longer work anymore – there is always so much to do, they are run off their feet, doing anything and everything so that they do not feel as if they are worthless.
If you do not have a stressful job or life, you are a nobody. We poo-poo at those who travel the world and live easy and calm lives, those who lead low key relaxed lives – the laid back ‘underachievers’.
Yet in countries such as Denmark – known as being the happiest country in the world, they think that we are all just disorganized and, well, stupid!
There is “good stress” (eustress) and “bad stress” (distress)—meaning, you experience certain stressful experiences as unpleasant and seek to avoid them, but others you may actually seek out because they’re fun.
For example, snowboarding, skydiving, roller coasters, or scary movies are experiences that may flip your thrill-switch—and your body responds to those stresses in the same way as if a tiger were chasing you.
Your muscles tense, your heart pounds, your respiration increases, and your body stops all of its non-essential processes.
This can be pleasantly exhilarating, and for some rather addictive… we all know someone who we describe as an “adrenalin junkie.”
A thrill is simply the relinquishing of a bit of control in a setting that feels safe. But when you’re in that heightened state of arousal 24/7, this stress takes its toll on your body just the same as “bad” stress does.
Science has established that stress can lead to cardiovascular disease, but did you know that it can also lead to weight gain—of the worst kind?
When we are stressed, weight settles around our waistline thanks to our stress hormones altering the way fat is deposited. Unfortunately belly fat is the most dangerous fat for the body to accumulate.
Our stress hormones are Adrenaline, Cortisol, and Norepinephrine.
Adrenaline along with norepinephrine is responsible for the immediate reactions we feel when stressed.
Imagine you are trying to change lanes in your car, and suddenly you notice in your blind spot someone racing at you at over 120 kilometers per hour. You swerve back into your lane with your heart pounding, breathing rapidly and muscles tensed as your mind is highly focused and energized – this is your flight or fight response.
Norepinephrine is similar to adrenaline. It is released from the adrenal glands and the brain. Norepinephrine helps shift blood flow away from areas it is not needed at the time such as the skin, and towards more essential areas where it is needed, such as the muscles so you can flee the stressful scene.
Depending on the long-term impact of whatever is stressing you out – and how you personally handle stress – it could take anywhere from half an hour to a couple of days to return to your normal resting state. If you are constantly under stress, your skin starts to suffer as well as other not so important areas not needed for flight, therefore causing skin issues such as acne to flare up as the skin is not receiving enough blood flow and oxygen to allow your skin to heal.
Cortisol is a steroid hormone. It is generally known as the stress hormone. It takes a little more time to get started when you are under attack – as in – it takes minutes not seconds to feel the effects. This hormone takes multiple steps to activate including two additional minor hormones.
Firstly the part of the brain called the amygdala has to recognize that there is a threat. Once it recognizes this, it sends a message to the part of the brain called the hypothalamus which releases corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH). CRH tells the pituitary gland to release an adrenocorticotropic hormone which then tells the glands to produce cortisol!
In survival mode, the optimal amounts of cortisol can be life-saving as it helps to maintain fluid balance and blood pressure whilst regulating some body functions that are not crucial at that moment in time, such as reproductive drive, immunity, digestion, and growth.
But when you stew on a problem, the body continuously releases cortisol and this leads to serious issues. Too much cortisol suppresses the immune system, increases blood pressure and sugar, decreases libido, produces acne, and contributes to obesity and more.
Long term ongoing stress can also damage your brain cells and make you lose the capacity to remember things.
Stress disrupts your neuroendocrine and immune system – creating a degenerative process in your brain that can result in Alzheimer’s disease.
It also shortens your lifespan as it accelerates aging by shortening our telomeres which are the genetic structures that regulate how our cells age.
In the words of Dr. Lissa Rankin, author of Mind Over Medicine:
“Our bodies know how to fix broken proteins, kill cancer cells, retard aging, and fight infection. They even know how to heal ulcers, make skin lesions disappear and knit together broken bones! But here’s the kicker—those natural self-repair mechanisms don’t work if you’re stressed!”
Excessive cortisol over a prolonged period can contribute to deplete the adrenal glands and suppress the production of serotonin making one feel anxious and depressed.
The most common health conditions that are caused by or worsened by stress are:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Chronic fatigue
- Thyroid issues
- Blood sugar issues
- Frequent colds
- Memory Loss
- Sexual dysfunction
- Appetite changes
- Infertility and irregular cycles
- Trouble concentrating
- Digestive issues, intolerances to food.
- Abdominal fat and all-round weight gain
A study taken, called the Dutch Famine Birth Cohort Study (Hungerwinter Study), showed that stress in utero might be followed by a lifetime of poor health. Survivors of the Dutch famine are now in their 60s, and those conceived during the famine have higher rates of cardiovascular disease and diabetes and are in poorer overall health than those conceived after the famine ended. Researchers believe that stress hormones in the blood of those pregnant women triggered changes in their babies’ developing nervous systems as they battled against starvation. Decades later, their bodies still “remember” this prenatal stress.
The Dutch Famine Study is not the only scientific research taken to show that your mental and physical health can be permanently affected by childhood stress and trauma. The Adverse childhood experiences study (ACE is an ongoing research project that analyzes the relationship between stressful childhood experiences and health outcomes later in life) has found there is a very strong correlation between childhood stress and many diseases, including cancer, depression, and heart disease.
For example, elevated cortisol levels are a potential trigger for mental illness and reduced resilience, especially among adolescents. Evidence of the societal effects of unmanaged stress is disturbingly evident on the evening news, with seemingly ever-increasing episodes of bullying, suicides, and mass shootings, which are unfortunate, although extreme examples of what happens when people cannot cope. When you have effective stress reduction tools, you and your children are mentally and physically healthier, more resilient and less likely to be depressed, sick, or violent.
You can change your environment and your responses to stress by changing your attitude to the situations at hand. The upside of looking at the positive side of every issue – otherwise known as every cloud has a silver lining – you will be able to effectively decrease your stress levels, your cortisol will stabilize, your blood pressure will drop, and your health will improve in just about every way. It’s important to realize that stress management isn’t something you save up to do on the weekend—it needs to be done on a daily basis because that’s how often stress rears its ugly head. There are many different stress reduction techniques, and what works for you may not work for another.
One person may enjoy meditating, but another may feel calmer by cleaning the house! Stress management is a highly individual thing, and the last thing you want to do is be stressed by your supposedly stress-busting activity. You’ll have to find what works best for you.
Making the right food choices is incredibly important as well, as a healthy diet will increase your overall health and improve your resilience.
Sleep is also of great importance as sleep deprivation dramatically impairs your body’s ability to handle stress. This can be a catch though, as when you are stressed, you just cannot sleep – or you go to sleep and find yourself staring at the ceiling at 3 am in the morning!
Make sure you make time for yourself to have regular exercise. Exercise such as Yoga, Tai Chi, walking, swimming, sailing, basically anything which you enjoy is good for your stress levels as it relieves pent up tension.
Do things you love, such as gardening, relaxing in a bath, listening to music, watching a funny movie – the latter is exceptionally good as laughter lowers your blood pressure and lowers your stress hormone faster than anything else. Or really pamper yourself – have a massage or a facial (not at your salon – but somewhere where no one knows you). Buy yourself some flowers, read a good book, enjoy a high tea. Watch the sunset, getaway for the weekend on a mini-adventure. When you make yourself a priority, you boost your self-esteem – and find inner calmness.
Write at least 3 things every day you are grateful for. Train your mind to be grateful. When thinking of what you are grateful for, you cannot think of what you are not grateful for. Make sure you have time for real friends – those you can be really comfortable with. Those who love you for who you are.
Remind yourself what you like doing – and do it! This will bring unexpected joy into your life. Write down your passions, notice things that give you pleasure throughout the day.
Only wear clothes which make you feel pretty as this will lift your mood, if not attract compliments! Practice living in the present. Living in the present will change your life as you will start living in acceptance. When you accept life as it is, not as you wish it could be, you will not worry about the future or the past. The future and the past are illusions, they do not exist, live in the present moment where life is happening right now.
The future and the past are illusions, they do not exist, live in the present moment where life is happening right now.
If you have difficulty relaxing even when doing wonderful things you love as you are so incredibly tense, it often helps to add a natural or homeopathic relaxant to the mix.
There are many wonderful off the shelf products you can purchase such as a homeopathic blend called Calm and a flower essence blend called Calm and Clear. My favorite herb for stress is ashwagandha Withania Somnifera.
Scientists have discovered that the Indian herb ashwagandha (Withania Somnifera) counters some of the oxidative damage generated by nervous tension. Ashwagandha has been the subject of animal studies and is believed to confer improvements in well-being and a healthy outlook in humans.
In a large clinical trial, ashwagandha reduced levels of the hormone cortisol by up to 26% while maintaining already normal blood sugar levels and lipid profiles. Subjects who took the standardized ashwagandha extract reported improvements in energy, sleep, and well-being, as well as diminished fatigue. Additional research suggests that ashwagandha supports the regeneration of nerve cell components that support the brain and nervous system function.
B vitamins are food for the nervous system. In times of stress, the body rapidly uses them up, and as with Vitamin C, they are water-soluble and must be replenished daily. Taking a B stress tablet daily will support your stress levels.
B12 can be a problem for some people as it is not always absorbed properly – many doctors offer B12 injections for those who cannot absorb it into their systems.
Other herbs that are also brilliant for the support of the nervous system are; Passionflower which supports the relaxation centers of the nervous system, it calms and soothes without affecting the mood.
Fennel seeds have long been known to strengthen the digestive system which is often affected by stress. Feverfew is an aromatic herb that helps the body deal with muscular tension, which is often the cause of head and neck pain. Chamomile flowers support nerve health and mental
Feverfew is an aromatic herb that helps the body deal with muscular tension, which is often the cause of head and neck pain. Chamomile flowers support nerve health and mental
Chamomile flowers support nerve health and mental alertness and aids digestion and circulation. Hops is a tonic herb, it promotes sleep and helps the body deal with restlessness. Schizandra fruit allows the body to rapidly respond to stress increasing our ability to work. It also helps with circulation.
Hops is a tonic herb, it promotes sleep and helps the body deal with restlessness. Schizandra fruit allows the body to rapidly respond to stress increasing our ability to work. It also helps with circulation.
Schizandra fruit allows the body to rapidly respond to stress increasing our ability to work. It also helps with circulation.
A change in attitude with the help of natural calming herbs or homeopathy, loving oneself enough to make time to do what you love, and finding time to relax, will drop your level of stress. Take a deep breath……… release……… and let go of anything which is not good for you.
Take a deep breath……… release……… and let go of anything which is not good for you.
Letting go of anything negative, and not being afraid to take a dive into the unknown, will always reward you with wonderful surprises.
There is nothing as wonderful as being able to say – I am completely stress-free – my life is just wonderful, I am afraid of nothing, and no one can cause me grief or pain – even if it is only for an hour or two!
Hi! My name is Yvette van Schie, I am a qualified Beauty Therapist and professional makeup artist with 34 years of industry experience. I have worked with some of the best in the business, such as naturopaths and cosmetic surgeons and now besides writing my educational blog posts, I write holistic beauty articles for a multitude of professional industry suppliers.
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