Stress compromises the immune system which then creates a breeding ground for illness and disease. Researchers have found that stress is a contributing factor in 80% of all major illnesses, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes and other endocrine/metabolic diseases. Skin disorders and infections as well as back problems can result from increased stress in one’s life. Stress may also be a common contributor to other psychological problems such as anxiety and depression.
What is stress?
Stress is a physical response. Under stress, the body thinks it is under attack and switches to ‘fight or flight’ mode, releasing a complex mix of hormones and chemicals to prepare the body for physical action. This causes a number of reactions, from blood being diverted to muscles to shutting down unnecessary bodily functions such as digestion. There are very few situations in modern life where this response is useful. In fact, it needs to be controlled to avoid problems of poor health and burnout.
Some of the early research on stress (conducted by Walter Cannon in 1932) established the existence of the well-known “fight-or-flight” response. His work showed that when an organism experiences a shock or perceives a threat, it quickly releases hormones that help it to survive.
In humans, as in other animals, these hormones help us to run faster and fight harder. They increase heart rate and blood pressure, delivering more oxygen and blood sugar to power important muscles. They increase sweating in an effort to cool these muscles, and help them stay efficient. They divert blood away from the skin to the core of our bodies, reducing blood loss if we are damaged. As well as this, these hormones focus
our attention on the threat, to the exclusion of everything else. All of this significantly improves our ability to survive life-threatening events.
Life-threatening events are not the only ones to trigger this reaction. We experience it almost any time we come across something unexpected or something that frustrates our goals. When the threat is small, our response is small and we often do not notice it among the many other distractions of a stressful situation.
Unfortunately, this mobilisation of the body for survival also has negative consequences. In this state, we are excitable, anxious, jumpy and irritable. This actually reduces our ability to work effectively with other people. With trembling and a pounding heart, we can find it difficult to execute precise, controlled skills. The intensity of our focus on survival interferes with our ability to make fine judgments by drawing information from many sources. We find ourselves more accident-prone and less able to make good decisions.
There are very few situations in modern working life where this response is useful. Most situations benefit from a calm, rational, controlled and socially sensitive approach. In the short term, we need to keep this fight-or-flight response under control to be effective in our jobs. In the long term we need to keep it under control to avoid problems of poor health and burnout.
Causes of stress
We cannot specify what external conditions cause stress as the stress reaction is based on our interpretation of a stressful condition. There is not a specific cause of stress – only a person’s reaction to a condition, situation or an event.
How we react to a stressful situation is based on our individual appraisal and interpretation; although some situations are considerably more stressful than others – having surgery, facing major health challenges, moving job/school/house, exams, weddings, divorces etc.
How do we feel when we become stressed?
When a stressful situation is interpreted as dangerous or threatening, people experience feelings of tension, apprehension and worry. They also undergo a range of physiological and behavioural changes. These feelings of tension, apprehension, nervousness and worry may also be accompanied with behavioural and physiological changes such as trembling; palpitations; dizziness; tremors and so on. These are also very often, the symptoms of anxiety. Therefore anxiety is something that is felt.
Often the first reaction is a feeling of tension, apprehension and worry. Then we see behavioural and physiological changes such as trembling, palpitations or dizziness plus symptoms of anxiety. When you’re stressed you might experience:
- An increased heart rate
- A dry mouth
- A tense forehead
- Shallow and fast breathing
- Strain in the eyes
- Clenched jaws and teeth
- Disruption of the facial complexion
- Feelings of anger or hostility
- Increased perspiration
- Closing of blood vessels leading to poor circulation
- Tightness of the skin
- Increased white blood cell count
- Increased blood sugar
- Increased blood pressure
- Suspension of the digestive system and ‘butterflies’ in the stomach
- A relaxed bladder
Stay in this state for a prolonged period, and all your energy goes on dealing with regulating these body changes. Physically you end up exhausted and depressed. Chronic stress can lead to even worse conditions such as back problems, heart problems, migraine, asthma, digestive problems, skin conditions and allergies.
Being in a relaxed and rested state, however, brings all sorts of physical and psychological benefits. For example you experience:
- A decreased heart rate
- Slow and deep breathing
- Normal function of blood vessels and circulation
- Normal saliva function, aiding digestion
- Relaxed facial muscles
- Normal function of the pupils and eyes
- Inhibited production of white blood cells
- Relaxed muscles
- Reduced blood pressure
- Reduced blood sugar leading to stable eating patterns
- Normal function of the sweat glands
- Normal digestion
- A contracted bladder
- Restful and calm feelings
Effects of stress
There are four main ways in which we may respond to stress:
- Physical changes in the body, such as tension headaches, skin rashes
- Emotional changes in the way we feel, such as feeling angry or ‘high’
- Mental changes, such as decreased ability to concentrate or make decisions
- Behavioural changes, such as becoming withdrawn, aggressive or irritable.
Mental and emotional effects of long-term stress
Long-term stress can stay with us for days or weeks on end. It is the physical and psychological effects of chronic stress that eventually makes us ill.
Stress is generally accompanied by a lowering of mood. This can be caused by feeling constantly under threat, which reduces your confidence and sense of security. Also, physiologically, the production of excess adrenaline will starve the brain of essential nutrients and inhibit the production of seratonin, the natural mood-enhancing hormone.
If left unchecked, your situation can deteriorate to the point where you feel the situation is hopeless and you are powerless to do anything about it. If this downward cycle is not stopped depressive illness can easily occur. In fact the worst recipe for stress is one where you experience unremitting pressure or have excessive demands while at the same time you feel as if you have little or no control.
Our bodies and minds use a lot of energy to maintain the fight-flight response, so it is difficult to maintain our normal levels of performance in the following areas:
- Memory and concentration start to deteriorate
- We are more easily irritated and get angry at small things
- Confidence levels drop
- Creativity and problem solving abilities deteriorate
- Loss of interest in job and home life
- Experience moments of panic or despair
- ‘Anticipatory anxiety’ and worry becomes more frequent
- We become pessimistic
Negative health effects of long-term stress
A chronic fight-flight response or ‘stress’ will quickly change our behaviour for the worse and will eventually damage our health. For example:
- Increased blood pressure: chronic high BP, stroke, heart attack
- Digestion slow down: ulcers, constipation, loss of energy through malabsorption of nutrients
- Increased glucose: blood/sugar imbalance, possible diabetes and sugar blues
- Blood thickening: blood clots, strokes, heart attack, pulmonary embolism.
- Adrenal glands exhausted: people look for caffeine, sugar, cigarettes to keep themselves going
- The body uses up natural vitamin C and other nutrients: this gradually weakens the immune system.
Because the immune system is weakened your ability to fight infection and viruses is reduced. Therefore, if you have an ‘Achilles’ Heel’ and are, for example, prone to sore throats, upset stomachs or headaches, they may occur more often if you are stressed.
Breathing and stretching exercises to calm, relax and re-energise
Stress is very much an individual reaction – what is stressful to one individual may not be a problem for another. This is part of the reason why you can’t buy an off-the-shelf stress management strategy; each individual has to sort out his or her own source of stress and then build a personal strategy to manage it.
The following are a few exercises to improve mood and confidence, many are based on ancient practices such as yoga and martial arts, however all have proven medical benefits:
Alternate nostril breathing
Place a finger under your nostrils and exhale through nostrils. One nostril will be working harder than the other. This changes according to activity and it swaps throughout the day.
Tap up right nostril with left thumb.
Inhale from left nostril to the count of four.
Gently pinch the left nostril with right ring finger to the count of 16.
Exhale through right nostril for 8.
Inhale through the right for 4.
Hold for 16.
Exhale through left for 8.
Benefits – balances the serotonin, the chemical that regulates happiness, in your brain. Inhaling for four then holding means that the air is pushed down to the bottom of lung. Exhaling for double means that more toxins are released thus cleaning the lungs. You will feel very relaxed after this exercise, particularly in the shoulder area. Heightens perception.
Baby breathing exercise
Imagine a triangle that starts at your belly button and the corners are at your hips. Inside that triangle is a ball or a balloon. Every time you take a breath in imagine that ball or balloon filling up with air. Take a nice slow deep breath in and fill the belly up with air. Hold at the top of the breath 5-10 seconds and the slow exhale pulling the navel to the spine.
Repeat 5 times and ask them what changes they notice!
Not to be done by manic depressives, epileptics, people with high blood pressure or those suffering from a hernia. Not to be done if you have not been taught the technique by a qualified practitioner.
Sit or stand in a comfortable position – if sitting either on the knees
or cross legged.
Inhale and raise arms out sideways, Diaphragm descends, belly pumps out
Exhale and bend arms in to ribs
We will be repeating this 30 x slow, medium and fast.
Benefits – The benefits are huge. This protects against airborne diseases; tones the heart; burns toxins; increases exchange of O2 and CO2 in bloodstream, thus stimulating metabolism. Excellent for asthmatics. Balances nervous system.
Using imagery to relax
Guided imagery is a form of self-hypnosis that has been associated with positive stimulation of the immune system. Positive suggestion is used to release negative self-image, assist in creating and achieving goals, and as a natural way to relieve physical, mental and emotional stress.
The method can be used to treat stress-related illnesses such as high blood pressure and insomnia. This is a terrific way to reduce stress through those day-to-day challenges. It’s simple, low-tech and effective: all you need is your imagination and a few minutes to yourself.
5 minute holiday technique
Imagine you could go on holiday without the stress of packing, airport security and flight delays! The good news is that your subconscious cannot differentiate between what is real and what is perceived. So if you imagine something vividly enough your body will respond as if you are actually experiencing it!
You can learn the secrets of guided imagery and use them at any time of the day. All you need is five minutes to yourself. Think of a relaxing destination for your 5 minute holiday.
Begin by closing your eyes and taking deep, measured breaths. Imagine that you are in beautiful surroundings – either a place you have visited or a place you conjure up from your imagination. Focus on bringing all the elements of the scene to life: the colours you see, the sounds you hear, the smells you detect, the aromas and taste. How does your body feel with whatever it’s doing in your special place? Is it warm or cool? Are you alone or with others? Bring the images into focus and try to “stay in the scene” for at least five minutes.
The key is to use all of your five senses to experience your holiday – see it, hear it, taste it, touch it and smell it.
Practice this exercise for a few minutes every day or use whenever you’re stressed.
Nutritional Health and Stress
Most of the time we give our bodies toxin-loaded, chemically constituted platefuls of food and expect it to cope without a grumble. Even if we eat relatively well, life goes at such a pace nowadays that we gulp down half chewed mouthfuls, putting strain on our digestive systems. In fact, from the body’s point of view, we put it under enormous stress.
Stress and nutrition have always been linked – it’s a fact. Someone with a healthy and balanced diet is likely to be far less stressed than someone with a poor diet.
Certain foods and drinks can aggravate stress
It doesn’t necessarily mean that you should avoid some of them completely, just consume them in moderation.
Foods and drinks that can trigger and aggravate stress include:
- Tea, coffee, cocoa, energy drinks
- Fast foods and takeaways
- Butter, cheese
- Meat and shellfish
- Soda, soft drinks and chocolate drinks
- Almonds, macadamias and other nuts
- Coconut oil
It’s not all doom and gloom, though.
- Fresh vegetables
- Fresh fruits
- Skimmed milk
- Herbal products
The dangers of breakfast!
First thing in the morning, for example, the alarm goes off and you drag yourself from a restful state. You reach for your first cup of caffeine and probably some highly processed food such as toast or sugar-loaded cereals. But by the time you reach work, that sugary cereal may have shut down your immune system. The body can only work efficiently with about three teaspoons of sugar in the bloodstream at any given time. Anything over this and your immune system may be suppressed for anything up to six hours. (By the way, did you know that there are about 13 teaspoons of sugar in a can of coke?)
Your body is also on high alert, thanks to the caffeine you drank. Caffeine stays in the body for six hours before it starts to deplete, all the time triggering the release of the stress hormone cortisol, preparing you for fight or flight and compounding your stress problem.
Eat a ‘rainbow’
There are 350,000 different forms of edible plants on this planet. How many do you eat in a week? A variety is essential as different types and colours of food contain different vitamins and minerals. And your body can actually get stressed by trying to break down the same food time and time again. So eat ‘a rainbow’ of food colours instead.
If you want a strong nervous system, boost your intake of vitamins B, C and E together with minerals magnesium and zinc. The best source of these nutrients is from food, rather than supplements. So eat a balanced diet of meat, nuts, seeds, fresh fruit and vegetables and oily fish. If you need to snack during the day, try pumpkin or sunflower seeds and fruit particularly bananas. Fresh organic food is the best source. If you can’t get fresh, frozen vegetables are a reasonable alternative as much of their nutritional content is retained. For more information please visit www.stress.org.uk
Kindly provided by: The Stress Management Society Suite C, Quay West Salamandar Quay Harefield, Middlesex UB9 6NZ Telephone: 0800 327 7697 www.stress.org.uk