Today, let’s talk about stress. I see it on the faces of friends, family, and complete strangers. I see it on my own face when I look in the mirror. I can feel its effects on my body. I observe its effects on others.
Being a proactive person (others would say I was a control freak, but I’ll save that for another blog), I decided to dive into the science behind this thing we all seem to be carrying around—stress.
Let me start by saying that we’re always going to have some degree of stress in our lives. Our bodies are designed to react to stressful situations. Known as the “fight or flight” response, it means we have a carefully orchestrated, built-in mechanism that enables us to react quickly (and often without even thinking about it) to life-threatening situations. But, today, it seems we’re on stress overload; with our bodies reacting to stressful situations that are not life-threatening. Think traffic jams, work pressures, lifestyle changes, and family challenges. Add in all the uncertainties that come with a world-wide pandemic and I think you’ll agree that the overload is real.
Keeping our bodies in a constant state of having to react to all the stress in our lives can lead to chronic stress, and that is a problem. Research suggests that chronic stress contributes to high blood pressure, heart disease, anxiety, depression, addiction and even obesity (through overeating, sleep deprivation, or lack of exercise).
If you’re on stress overload, know that there are ways to manage it. But, before we go there, I just can’t help but geek out a bit because it has to do with how the brain is wired. You know how fascinating that is to me, so I hope you’ll hang in here for a while.
When you’re stressed (life-threatening or otherwise), the part of the brain that processes your emotions, the amygdala, sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is a command center because it communicates with the rest of the body through the autonomic nervous system, a system that controls involuntary body functions like breathing, blood pressure, heartbeat, and the dilation or constriction of key blood vessels.
The autonomic nervous system has two components, the sympathetic nervous system (which functions like the gas pedal on your car) and the parasympathetic nervous system (which acts like the brake). So, the sympathetic nervous system initiates the fight or flight response and the parasympathetic nervous system calms the body down after the event has passed.
Once the hypothalamus receives the distress signal, it activates the sympathetic nervous system by sending signals through the autonomic nerves to the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands respond by pumping the hormone epinephrine (adrenaline) into the bloodstream. You know what happens next. The heart beats faster to pump blood to the vital organs, pulse rate and blood pressure go up, breathing is more rapid, and glucose and stored fat are released. All of this happens instantaneously to get energy where it’s needed in the body.
But, the hypothalamus doesn’t stop there. It activates the second component of the stress response system—the HPA axis, which consists of the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands. Once the adrenal glands get the signal to “keep the gas pedal down,” they release cortisol which keeps the body “revved up” and on high alert.
When the threat passes, cortisol levels drop off and the parasympathetic nervous system puts on the brake.
That’s good, right?
Yes, and no. If you are able to put the brakes on low-level everyday stress, then that’s good. But if you’re like most people, (including me) you’re really lousy at controlling the gas pedal and brake in your body’s vehicle. That’s because the reaction is usually being triggered in the subconscious mind and it’s happening way too fast for us to consciously apply the brake.
Chronic low-level stress keeps the HPA axis activated and that contributes to the health problems associated with chronic stress. Persistent surges of endorphins can damage blood vessels and arteries, increase blood pressure, and raise the risk of heart attacks or strokes. Elevated cortisol levels replenish the body’s energy stores that were released during the stress event (glucose and fat) but because cortisol also increases appetite, it can have unintended consequences. An example is the weight gain that comes with “stress eating.”
Some ways you can manage low-level everyday stress (especially if it’s chronic stress) are to meditate, journal, take a walk in nature, practice yoga or breath work, and eat a balanced diet filled with an adequate supply of vitamin and mineral rich foods. You can find more resources on managing stress and living by design at linktr.ee/christinestallard, in my blogs on my website at christinestallard.com and in my Facebook community Amazing Women Living by Design.