Stress is a state of mental, emotional or physical tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances. The stress response, also known as the "fight-or-flight" response, is a survival mechanism developed by mammals to react to life-threatening situations with increased focus, strength, stamina and alertness. But in humans, the stress response can also be activated in all sorts of situations, even if they are of minor importance.
A little bit of stress is good: it forces us to adapt, which increases our health, strength, experience and resilience. This process is called hormesis. Good stress can also keep us motivated, such as when we get promoted at work or embark on new challenges.
Animals are very good at turning off their stress response once the stressor is gone. But us? Not so much! We can stay stressed for days, weeks or even months, because we ruminate. We keep on thinking about the issue, imagining the worst case scenario, worrying about what is going to happen... We just can't let go. The stressor might be gone but we fool our body into thinking it is still here. Or we can start stressing long before a situation even occurs. In other words, we can create stressors in our heads and experience strong emotions with just mere thoughts.
Chronic stress is a human invention and is only getting worse with our modern fast-paced lifestyles. And over time, the repeated activation of our stress response takes a toll on our body.
How does stress work?
The stress response starts in our limbic system, also called the "lizard brain", responsible for primitive functions such as fighting, running away, freezing up, feeding or mating. It triggers the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline (epinephrine in the US).
Our heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate increase to transport more nutrients and oxygen to the brain, muscles and organs that are needed to respond to the emergency. The cortisol raises our blood glucose for immediate energy. Muscles tense up to protect against possible injuries. Our sight, hearing and other senses become sharper and our brain more alert to help us optimise our fight-or-flight response.
Non-essential functions such as digestion, growth, reproduction, libido, immune function... are turned off to save energy to focus on the emergency. Our perception of pain is blunted.
When all goes well, our stress response is commensurate with the stressor, sustained as long as it takes to deal with the situation and turned off afterwards. We become more resilient and will be more efficient at dealing with the same situation, should it happen again.
But if we are not able to turn off our stress response once the emergency has passed, we cannot relax and restore our normal functions and energy. The stress becomes chronic and we are stuck in a fight-or-flight mode. This is exhausting, unpleasant and can seriously affect our long-term health. Our stress hormones can continue to increase our physical and cognitive performance for days or weeks. This is the stress resistance phase. But after a while, our cortisol levels drop below normal, our immune system becomes vulnerable, our brain performance declines, and this results in prolonged physical fatigue. This is the exhaustion or burn-out phase.
The causes of stress
Responses to stress are very individual. What one person finds stressful may be of little concern or even thrilling to another: bungee jumping or public speaking for instance. Some of us can remain calm and resist well under pressure, whilst others are unable to cope. Our reaction can also vary depending on how tired or hungry we are, or how much stress we are already dealing with.
Common stressors include anything from life-threatening situations to daily inconveniences: wars, disasters, illnesses, accidents, injuries, abusive relationships, divorce, family issues, conflicts, financial difficulties, work-related stress, unemployment, deadlines or commitments, travelling, moving house, being stuck in traffic, being late for an appointment...
But there are many other possible stressors that we may not think about or even be aware of: smoking, excess alcohol consumption, chemical exposure, heavy metal toxicity, pharmaceuticals, Electro Magnetic Fields ("EMF"), pollution, lack of exercise, poor sleep, excessive sugar or bad fat consumption, past traumas, lack of self-care...
Our stress bucket
All the different types of stress that we experience accumulate in one single stress bucket, whether they are mental, emotional or physical. Tough deadlines at work, conflict with our spouse or kids, physical injuries, poor sleep, unhealthy diet... they all accumulate in this bucket.
We can handle a certain amount of stress for a while, until we reach breaking point. This is the straw that broke the camel's back. We can lose it completely for a totally insignificant matter, which will make people around us wonder what our problem is and why our reaction is so out of proportion. Our stress bucket starts overflowing and it exceeds our body’s ability to deal with our total stress load. We are breaking down and health issues start developing.
Chronic stress is terribly bad for our health
2 different studies showed that somewhere between 60% and 90% of doctor visits have a stress-related component. This is hard to believe! But research shows that chronic stress can indeed have very serious long-term effects on our health.
As our stress response turns off a number of "non-essential" functions in our body such as digestion, growth, reproduction, libido and immune function, chronic stress can result in digestive issues, irritable bowel syndrome, leaky guts (imagine holes in the intestinal barrier that allow harmful molecules to enter the body), osteoporosis, weakened immune system, fertility issues...
Chronic stress means a constant release of cortisol and increased blood glucose levels. This glucose can come from the break-down of muscle mass. Not good, considering how hard it is to build muscles! And more glucose in the bloodstream means more insulin, weight gain, fat storage and eventually insulin resistance.
Chronic stress can also make us crave starchy, sugary, fatty foods from which we can get the energy to continue to deal with the stressor or in preparation for the recovery period. If we give in to the cravings, this means more fat storage and weight gain.
Other consequences of chronic stress include depression, anxiety, insomnia, aggressiveness, inflammation, DNA damage, impaired memory, hypertension, atherosclerosis, acne, chronic pain or headaches (from constant muscle tension), respiratory issues (due to rapid breathing and airways constriction). Our mitochondria, the energy factories in our body, switch to a defence mode. They stop providing the energy that we need, start releasing more free radicals, leading to brain fog, fatigue, an increased risk of diseases and accelerated aging.
Stress can even be lethal. In extreme cases, it can cause heart attacks, strokes or stimulate the proliferation of cancer cells.
So what can you do about it?
Then, identify your main stressors: list your top 5 or top 10. For the stressors that you can control, the next step is to take action to reduce or eliminate them. For the stressors that you cannot control, you can work on reframing your perception or take action to mitigate their impact.
In all cases, you can practice relaxation techniques to reduce your total stress load and become more resilient. This can empty some of your bucket to help avoid stress burn-out.
Too little stress is as bad as too much stress and it is a fine balance to get the right amount. I will cover stress reduction techniques in my next blog, so stay tuned!
This article is for educational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, heal or prevent any disease or medical condition. See full disclaimer here.