Manage your stress levels to live a healthy lifestyle
“That the birds of worry and care fly over your head, this you cannot change, but that they build nests in your hair, this you can prevent.” – Chinese Proverb
Physiology of stress
From a physiological context, stress can be defined as a physical, mental or emotional factor that causes physical or mental tension.
The physiological response of the body to any extreme change or danger is to provide immediate protection in the form of the “fight or flight” response, a complex reaction of neurological and endocrine systems which mobilise all the body’s resources to avoid or win the fight.
Stress can be external (environment, social, family situation) or internal (illness, food, intense physical exercise). The ability of the body to react to stress and then recover from stress are one of the most important functions for survival or adaptation to the changes in the environment.
How does the body react to stress?
The body’s nervous system which responsible for the reaction to stress are called autonomic (or automatic), because this part of nervous system works autonomously, without the person’s conscious effort. The autonomic nervous system is the part of nervous system that supplies all the internal organs including blood vessels, stomach, intestine, liver, kidneys etc. and it regulates certain body processes, for example, the rate of heart beat and breathing, and the blood pressure.
The autonomic nervous system consists of two parts, called the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic system controls the response to stress itself, and the parasympathetic system controls the opposite relaxation response after stress. Just as the first sympathetic reaction is important to survive in a critical situation, the follow up relaxation is also critical to recover the body from this acute mobilisation of all resources to survive. Knowing the complexity of the physiology of these reactions is important in understanding how to manage the stress reaction better.
What happens when stress occurs?
As soon as the brain perceives stress, the sympathetic nervous system sends messages to muscles, organs and endocrine glands. The endocrine system responds by producing hormones, catecholamines (adrenaline and noradrenaline), cortisol, aldosterone and other neurotransmitters which facilitate the immediate physical reaction, “fight or flight” response.
The body will then be ready to fight or flight by mobilising all relevant organs to work on maximum capacity. This includes accelerated heartbeat and breathing, including the dilation of blood vessels to the brain and muscles (visually seen as paling or flushing) and increasing oxygenation of their cells. Conversely, there is constriction of blood vessels in many parts of the body which will not be involved, such as the gut and reproductive organs.
How does the body relax?
The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for reversing the effects of stress, which helps to relax and recover from stress reaction.
The effects of the parasympathetic system are as follows:
Decreased blood pressure, slower heart rate and breathing.
Immune system response, to recover the tissue from wounds if needed.
Feeling calm, tranquil, tired and leading to a good deep sleep.
Relaxation of muscles, stomach, intestine and the digestive system.
A healthy reaction to stress provides mobilisation of all resources and then recovery from stress to avoid any negative reaction of stress on the body. An unhealthy reaction of stress occurs when there is imbalance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic effects, and this can cause many health problems, including acute and chronic disorders.
Acute (short-term) stress
Acute stress can cause some medical conditions including hypertension, heart attack and the relatively recently recognised condition known as takotsubo (or broken- heart) syndrome (a condition similar to a heart attack). Psychological diseases such as panic attacks or delirium in the elderly, worsen many chronic diseases. Stress affects many brain functions, including memory, mood and anxiety. Stress also promotes inflammation, which adversely affects heart health and many other systems in the body.
Chronic (long-lasting) stress
The human body is not designed to respond to chronic stress or several stressful situations one after another. Repetitive stress does not allow the body enough time to recover from previous stress.
Many scientists suggest that the human stress response system was not designed to be constantly activated. Therefore, the overuse of this system can contribute to the breakdown of many organs and systems. This causes diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, reduced immunity to infections, insomnia and mental health problems.
Stress is not always bad. Light stress and release of all these hormones also have positive reactions. Experiences of light stress, such as during exams for students, sport or art competitions for athletes and artists do stimulate the brain, endocrine and immune system. Some neuroscientists have reported that some light, positive stress improves memory and helps in preventing memory loss.
The first rule of dealing with stress is to avoid stress.
It may not be always possible. However, there are some simple rules below on how to protect yourself from damaging stress.
Establish some control over the situation
Get a good night sleep
Get help if you need it
Change your attitude towards stress.
Having said that, stress management is a complex measure that you use to control and release yourself from stress. Stress management skills sometimes come naturally to people, but the ability to cope with stress varies and some people find it more difficult than others. However, everyone can learn some of these stress management skills. If you are struggling with stressful situations, seeking professional help early may be beneficial.
Some tips on stress management:
Evaluate your stress management skills by looking at how you react to stress.
If you realise that you have an unhealthy reaction or are having uncontrolled stress, learn to improve your reaction, and seek advice if needed.
The following stress management techniques can help you react to a potential stressful situation in more helpful and productive ways:
Yoga exercises and stretching
When we talk about stress management, there is no one-size-fits all solution. Each individual has their own unique situation and modifying different aspects in ways that are personal to the individual will help them to stay well.
Finally, stress management is always a combination of exercise, relaxation/meditation, diet, how much sleep you get, your relationships and the purpose of life – all these six pillars of lifestyles medicine are important in controlling our reaction to stress.