Ask the Expert - 'How can I sort out my stress!?'
Everyday Stress vs Damaging Stress
The question I am asked every day in various ways is how to help combat stress and its many often debilitating effects. I thought I'd share what this stress thing is all about and how we can learn to live well with and manage stress, rather than eliminate it entirely. It ain't all bad.
"Stress gets a bit of a bad rap but surviving unharmed (ideally) is fundamental to life!"
To be stressed from time to time is a normal healthy part of life and being human. It’s when stress becomes chronic that problems both physical, emotional and mental emerge putting your long term health and everyday happiness at risk. Your stress response is a natural alarm system designed to keep you alive and safe. Stress gets a bit of a bad rap but surviving unharmed (ideally) is fundamental to life! It only becomes detrimental to one’s health (and therefore long term survival) if the stress alarm bell is ringing all the
Every perceived threat, or stressor leads to a release from your adrenal glands of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. The more threats perceived, the more hormones are released. Chronic stress leads to consistently high cortisol levels and at this prolonged high level a tendency to become stuck in a ‘threat state’, where we become more edgy, jumpy and hyper-vigilant for dangers. This ‘fear gear’ can result in adrenaline release more readily, as you are primed to respond to perceived life and death triggers.
The reality of present day stress for most of us is normally far more mundane than this (unless you’re living in a war zone, on the front line, or living in an abusive violent situation for example). Our brains however can overreact, such that worries about jobs, family, neighbours, bank balance, studies, loneliness, health, relationships, phobia’s etc. are treated as life threatening concerns.
This complex natural alarm system communicates with parts of the brain that control mood and motivation, not just fear, which is why when we’re stressed it can mess with so many of our normal healthy functions and drives.
The C-word - Cortisol
The every day stress hormone Cortisol increases glucose to the bloodstream, enhances your brain's use of glucose and the availability of substances for tissue repair. Cortisol release dumbs down nonessential functions in order to preserve our finite resources for potential fight or flight situations (see below). This causes changes in immune system response, the reproductive system, growth processes and suppresses digestive processes. Which is why we can catch more colds when stressed, or take longer to heal from injury, experience appetite and toilet habit changes and if trying to conceive we may find it difficult to do so and/or lose our mojo!
If you have some of the stress symptoms below you’re likely experiencing the effects of chronic stress. Long term overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones disrupts most of your body’s processes which puts you at increased risk of health problems in the long term.
Common stress symptoms include:
problems sleeping/early morning waking/nightmares
fatigue, physical weakness, apathy
appetite changes (increased or decreased), subsequent weight gain/loss
tension headaches, jaw pain from tension. bruxism (tooth grinding at night)
generalised anxiety and/or depression
IBS or digestive problems e.g. cramps, wind and/or needing to go more often, or more urgently
difficulty concentrating and remembering
intolerance, impatience, or lack of motivation
feeling overwhelmed, sensitive and emotional
Panic attacks are the next level when adrenaline joins in with cortisol to rev things up to the max. Adrenaline rapidly increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts energy supplies to muscles. This fight, flight or freeze response kicks in big time so you can escape imminent death from a predator, or other immediately life threatening catastrophe. Your job interview, potential redundancy, difficult relationships, or general worry about work/school/life/phobia’s etc. are very hard to deal with but are not in the category of ‘about to die’. However, your body may take over as if this were the case, especially if you repeatedly perceive worries to be too much to handle.
Panic attack symptoms are varied but always come on suddenly, are debilitating and ‘stop play’ on normal activities. Some panic attack symptoms are the same as a heart attack, so must be checked out by medics in order to distinguish a potentially game ending myocardial infarction from anxiety (which is treated quite differently!).
Panic attack symptoms include some or more of the following:
breathing difficulties/hyperventilating/shallow breathing
pressure/lump in throat feeling
ringing in ears
knot in stomach, or ‘washing machine’ stomach
cold or hot sweats, or night sweats
fainting or dizziness
jelly legs etc.
Managing life’s stressors to be healthy and happy in a challenging world
The healthy functioning body's stress-response system is usually self-limiting. Once a perceived threat has passed, hormone levels should return to normal, with a reduction in heart rate and blood pressure and other systems resuming their regular activities. However, when stressors are always being responded to you are technically constantly under attack and your fight, flight or freeze reaction remains on. That's why it's so important to learn healthy ways to cope with your life stressors.
There are various ways to manage stress other than leave your job/family/the country and go live on a desert island (which of course may be just as stressful but in a different way!).
Sleep - this is KEY to living life well, as all our physical and mental housekeeping and repairs happen when we’re asleep. Ironically it is often the sticking point for those too stressed to sleep well! More on sleep training below*.
Exercise - we can ‘burn off’ cortisol with a workout of any kind, a good walk outside in nature ideally, (unless cortisol is too high in which case you add to your cortisol load - which is why if you’re reluctant and feeling too knackered to go the the gym when you normally enjoy such things you’re probably in this high cortisol state).
A really good laugh! Again may not be that easy to instigate in a stressful world but watching your favourite comedian on YouTube for 10 minutes may help towards breaking the cycle
Learning to abdominally breathe (the calming breath of sleep and safety) rather than chest breathing which keeps us ready for action but on edge
Deep relaxation - any which way that works for you, get lost in a film, good book, music, a soak in the bath, an engaging hobby, yoga, massage, meditation etc.
Guided hypnosis or self hypnosis which is the most effective method for stressed people and over thinkers. This offers an intense super charged rejuvenation, or deep sleep equivalent in as little as 10 minutes. Re-learning and regularly practicing the physiological relaxation response can also be coupled with clinical suggestion therapy to improve mind, mood and function e.g. increasing feelings of relaxation, positivity, confidence, optimism and *training you drop off to sleep easier, for longer and more deeply if sleep has been an issue
Increase your Self Care
Those who’re chronically stressed and suffering may need professional help to support a turnaround from unhealthily stressed, to healthy peace of mind, calm, capable feelings and balance. You can do a lot yourself to tip the balance back to feeling good again but you must make YOU a priority and make changes where you can.