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Stress - Effects on Health and How to Overcome It

Updated: Mar 14, 2022


What is stress?

Stress is our body's biological response to any physical, emotional or mental change.


Is all stress bad?

Stress isn’t always bad. Your first performance at school or a horror movie experience could be considered good forms of stress. However, stress should be temporary. Once you’ve departed the fight-or-flight moment, your heart rate and breathing should calm down and your muscles should relax. In a short time, your body should return to its biological homeostatic state without any chronic negative effects. Prolonged, severe, or frequent stress can be mentally and physically harmful. Any personal reaction which is perceived negatively can lead to "distress", the most basic form of stress. Also, there are events where stress is viewed positively known as "Eustress", also called "good stress".


Long term stress could be referred to as chronic stress during which the adrenal levels remain higher for a longer period of time. It could lead to sleep disruption and constrict blood vessels. This leads to the heart rate and blood pressure staying chronically high which increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and also diabetes mellitus.


Causes of stress

Stress can be triggered by various factors out of which these are the 3 major causes:


1. Biological: When an individual encounters a stressful incident, the amygdala, an area of the brain that contributes to fight or flight signal processing, transmits a stress signal to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus and the amygdala are so interconnected that they start this process even before the visual centers of the brain can process what's happening. In response to the stress signal, the hypothalamus stimulates the sympathetic nervous system by sending signals to the adrenal glands. These glands respond by producing the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline). Epinephrine causes several physiological changes such as the fast beating of the heart to increase blood flow to muscles and increasing blood glucose levels for muscles to gain energy quickly


2. Emotional: Stress is a natural response to the anxieties of day-to-day life. Worry, panic, anger, sorrow and other sentiments are all natural emotional reactions. However, if the stress that forms these emotions interferes with your capacity to perform things that you want or need, this stress can be considered unhealthy


3. Environmental: Various environmental factors can cause certain responses that can further aggravate stress, such as lack of natural light exposure, high temperature, noise, and increased exposure to pollutants


Symptoms of distress

Symptoms of stress could be physical, mental, emotional and behavioral:

  • Muscle cramps, spasms

  • Headache

  • Fatigue (lack of energy)

  • Allergies

  • Anxiety, lack of concentration, irrational fears, frequent worrying or obsessing

  • Gastrointestinal problems (cramping, bloating)

  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)

  • Palpitations

  • Hypoglycaemia or Hyperglycaemia

  • Insomnia (sleeping poorly)

  • Frequent irritability, mood swings

  • Appetite change

  • Increased smoking or alcohol consumption


Here are 6 effective ways to tackle stress



Primarily, let's change the way we perceive stress - why not make it our friend by altering our mind towards it? If you treat stress as an enemy of yours then stress could make you sick and could increase the risk of everything from the common cold to cardiovascular disease. If you experience a lot of stress but do not view stress response as harmful or if you can detach yourself from the situation and view yourself from a distance, then you're likely to have the lowest risk of developing health-related diseases.


1. Reframing how we perceive stress

If you change your mind about the stress you can change your body's response to stress, rethink your stress response as helpful. If you learn to view your stress response as helpful for your performance, you would be less stressed out, less anxious & more confident. In the typical stress response, heart rate goes up and blood vessels constrict. It is one of the reasons chronic stress is associated with cardiovascular diseases. It's not healthy to be in this state all the time. In a study where participants viewed their stress response as helpful their blood vessels stayed relaxed. Altogether how you think about stress matters when you helpfully perceive stress, and your body believes it, the stress response becomes healthier. A counselling psychologist can help you achieve this.


2. Nutrition

The major concern with stress is that it can induce unhealthy eating. Stress provokes the body to strive for foods that are high in fats and sugars. This drawback in eating will cause tremendous stress on the body and other issues that offer a peril to physical and mental health. Although you will feel relaxed after consuming the following products, they will only have a short-term effect and in the long term, they will create havoc on your body: Caffeine, Sugar, Fats, Alcohol, Smoking. These are the ingredients that need to be eliminated from your lifestyle if you need a healthy diet.


Balanced nutrition assembles your body for any tension that may be a trigger for your body. A well-balanced diet is rich in natural fibers such as vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains and beans because fiber is what our gut bacteria eat to product Short Chain Fatty Acids such as Butyrates which enhance our mood by curbing neuroinflammation. Such a diet is also rich in antioxidants, especially flavonoids, such as in berries. Lastly, omega 3 fatty acids found in flaxseeds and wild-caught seafood also play an important role in maintaining a healthy brain and nervous system.


3. Sleep


The body requires sleep to recoup. Sleep is when you naturally calm down, the heart rate goes down and blood pressure also decreases. Our stress hormone cortisol goes to low levels when we sleep. If we do not get the required amount of sleep (on average 8 hours) we will start to suffer. We will witness lack of attention, drowsiness, and a drastic deficit of energy. Maintaining a good sleep pattern is paramount to remaining focused and energized in our daily life.


4. Exercise


Exercise boosts general health and our perception of well-being. Any form of exercise can be a stress buster if done at the right time. Exercise further helps elevate the production of our brain's feel-good neurotransmitters, called endorphins. It has been shown to have effects on one's mood thus, improving self-confidence and helping relax by lowering the symptoms of anxiety.


Resistance training helps in building more muscle mass, in turn, raising our Basal Metabolic Rate which increases our energy levels throughout the day. Aerobic exercises help in building new brain cells and delay cognitive disorders. Exercise helps provide good quality sleep. Exercise boosts endorphins and reduces stress and stress-induced unhealthy eating. Patients with metabolic conditions are recommended a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise a day even if it's just a brisk walk. Importantly, doing 10 minutes of exercise thrice a day after meals is better than doing one 30 min exercise in a day.


5. Yoga & Meditation

Yoga is best known for stress reduction as it promotes mental stability and physical relaxation, which helps reduce stress and anxiety. The bodily postures enable flexibility, relieve anxiety, and reduce pain. One of the primary reasons for stress can be the secretion of cortisol - the primary stress hormone. Research has shown that practicing Yoga and meditation helps us cope with stress as it lowers the cortisol levels.


6. Exposure to Natural light

Sunlight enhances the release of serotonin from the brain, a neurotransmitter that boosts the mood and in return makes an individual feel calm and active. Insufficient sun exposure will hinder the production of serotonin which can lead to signs of depression. This is mostly witnessed during winters and is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), in which a person encounters symptoms of depression due to a lack of sunlight. Nonetheless, individual experiences remission of the symptoms during the spring and summer due to the increase in sunlight exposure because the body can compensate by increasing serotonin levels.



UV rays are also absorbed by chromophores which are present in different layers of skin that have mood-boosting effects. They stimulate epidermal cells known as keratinocytes to generate beta-endorphins, which primarily function to reduce stress.


References:


Introduction to stress management


Combating Stress with a Balanced Nutritional Diet



Global Journal of HUMAN-SOCIAL SCIENCE: Arts & Humanities – Psychology; Volume 14 Issue 7 Version 1.0the Year 2014 Publisher: Global Journals Inc. (USA)


Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School and WGBH Educational Foundation. (n.d.). Why do we sleep, anyway? Healthy Sleep. Retrieved from http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/healthy/matters/benefits-of-sleep/why-do-we-slee.


National Sleep Foundation. (n.d.). How much sleep do we need? Retrieved from http://www.sleepfoundation.org/article/how-sleep-works/how-much-sleep-do-we-really-need



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