STRESS is the most common issue most people are dealing with on a daily basis. If we look around in our society people of all ages, gender, nationality, religion or financial backgrounds admit to have stress and yet aren't very clear about what stress is. One may have stress because of work and another because of relationships. We may feel stressed when we expect more beyond our mental and physical capacity especially during exams or while running a race. In a very generic way we can say that stress is the gap between our expectations and reality. Ideally this gap should just affect the situation - getting good or bad grades in exam, winning or losing the race or the quality of work or relationships which causes stress.
The most commonly accepted definition of stress (mainly attributed to Richard S Lazarus) is that stress is a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that “demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize.” In short, it’s what we feel when we think we've lost control of events.
According to psychologist Richard Lazarus, stress is a two-way process; it involves the production of stressors by the environment, and the response of an individual subjected to these stressors. His conception regarding stress led to the theory of cognitive appraisal.
In a stressful situation an individual tends to ask questions like, “What does this stressor and/ or situation mean?”, and, “How can it influence me?” It is found that only uncontrollable stressors cause deleterious effects. Inescapable or uncontrollable stress can be destructive, whereas the same stress that feels escapable is less destructive.
This is how we get the two different types of stress called...
- Eustress - the positive stress
- Distress - the negative stress
Some of the most common sources of stress are…
1. Survival Stress - You may have heard the phrase "fight or flight" before. This is a common response to danger in all people and animals. When you are afraid that someone or something may physically hurt you, your body naturally responds with a burst of energy so that you will be better able to survive the dangerous situation (fight) or escape it all together (flight). This is survival stress.
2. Cognitive-emotional or Internal Stress - Have you ever caught yourself worrying about things you can do nothing about or worrying for no reason at all? This is internal stress and it is one of the most important kinds of stress to understand and manage. Internal stress is when people make themselves stressed. This often happens when we worry about things we can't control or put ourselves in situations we know will cause us stress. Some people become addicted to the kind of hurried, tense, lifestyle that results from being under stress. They even look for stressful situations and feel stress about things that aren't stressful.
3. Physical Stress, Fatigue and Overwork - This kind of stress builds up over a long time and can take a hard toll on your body. It can be caused by working too much or too hard at your job(s), school, or home. It can also be caused by not knowing how to manage your time well or how to take time out for rest and relaxation. This can be one of the hardest kinds of stress to avoid because many people feel this is out of their control.
- Includes physical stressors that are produced at various stages in our life, such as during growth spurts in adolescence, menopause, lack of exercise, poor nutrition, insufficient sleep, physical exertion beyond limits, illness, injuries, and aging.
- Included in this category is also the physical stress produced by psychological stressors, which produce muscle tension, headaches, stomach upsets, anxiety attacks, and bouts of depression.
4. Environmental Stress - This is a response to things around you that cause stress, such as noise, crowding, and pressure from work or family. Identifying these environmental stresses and learning to avoid them or deal with them will help lower your stress level.
- It includes physical stressors that impinge upon the five senses, such as weather, traffic, noise, pollution, and disturbing images.
Whatever be the stressor depending upon the time a person faces it, the effect vary on his/her body. So lets understand what happens in the mind and body when we are stressed?
Often occurring in quick 'bursts' in reaction to something in your environment, short-term stress can affect our body in many ways. During this stage the most active part of the body which translates the stress within our physiology is the Nervous System. The somatic nervous system carries information from our senses to the brain and it is then passed on to the Autonomic Nervous System which brings about the following changes as seen during public speaking in the image below...
2. Stage of resistance or Chronic Stress
In the resistance stage the mind and the body attempt to adapt to the cause of stress. In this stage, the body remains alert (at a lower level) but continues the normal functions. Things may be moving along smoothly for you. However, you may simply be learning to live with an unhealthy stress level. Depending on the long-term impact of whatever's stressing you out -- and how you personally handle stress -- it could take anywhere from half an hour to a couple of days to return to your normal resting state. Lets look in detail how the different body systems are affected by such long term stress...
- Nervous System
- Endocrine System
This is what happens during stress - First, the part of the brain called the amygdala has to recognize a threat. It then sends a message to the part of the brain called the hypothalamus, which releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). CRH then tells the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which tells the adrenal glands to produce CORTISOL the major stress hormone along with the others - DHEA, Adrenaline and Norepinephrine already produced.
Lets have a look at these hormones and other biochemicals in the stress response...
Cortisol, a glucocorticoid (steroid hormone), is produced from cholesterol in the two adrenal glands located on top of each kidney. It is normally released in response to events and circumstances such as waking up in the morning, exercising, and stress. Different diseases, such as Cushing syndrome and Addison disease, can lead to either too much or too little production of cortisol. Cortisol affects metabolism by increasing the level of glucose in the bloodstream. It does this by stimulating the liver to make glucose from protein and fat, a process called gluconeogenesis.
Pancreas use insulin to lower the glucose. However Cortisol inhibits insulin production in an attempt to prevent glucose from being stored, favouring its immediate use. It also lowers the use of glucose by stimulating the lymphatic tissue, fat tissue and muscle to use free fatty acids instead of glucose for energy. Cortisol lowers the use of amino acids, which are used to make proteins, and thereby interferes with the production of protein. It stimulates the breakdown of protein, as well.
Ill-Effects of Cortisol
Weight Gain - Cortisol may be involved in weight gain goes back to the blood sugar-insulin problem. Consistently high blood glucose levels along with insulin suppression lead to cells that are starved of glucose. But those cells are crying out for energy, and one way to regulate is to send hunger signals to the brain. This can lead to overeating. And, of course, unused glucose is eventually stored as body fat. Cortisol can mobilize triglycerides from storage and relocate them to visceral fat cells (those under the muscle, deep in the abdomen) Thus it becomes difficult to lose belly fat.
Diabetes - Since a principal function of cortisol is to thwart the effect of insulin—essentially rendering the cells insulin resistant—the body remains in a general insulin-resistant state when cortisol levels are chronically elevated. Over time, the pancreas struggles to keep up with the high demand for insulin, glucose levels in the blood remain high, the cells cannot get the sugar they need, and the cycle continues to increase the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Thyroid issues - Cortisol messes with the thyroid hormones.
1. Cortisol decreases TSH, lowering thyroid hormone production.
2. Cortisol inhibits the conversion of T4 to active T3, and increases the conversion of T4 to reverse T3.
The other most significant indirect effect the adrenals have on thyroid function is via their influence on blood sugar. High or low cortisol can cause hypoglycemica, hyperglycemia or both. Blood sugar imbalances cause hypothyroid symptoms in a variety of ways.
Adrenaline – a neurotransmitter triggered by stress to increase alertness and rapid reaction to threat is secreted by the adrenal glands. It increase cardiac output, increase blood pressure, and act on the central nervous system to increase alertness and aggressiveness. Your muscles are tense, you're breathing faster, you may start sweating because of increased adrenaline.
Ill-Effects of Adrenaline
High BP & Heart Issues - Adrenaline combines with B1 receptors on the heart making it beat faster and harder for an increased cardiac output. It also reacts with alpha receptors of blood vessels causing them to contract and increase Blood pressure
Spread of Cancer - adrenaline has a downside for animals and people with cancer: it increases the number and size of lymphatic vessels in and around tumours, while also increasing the rate of fluid flow through these vessels. Both of these combine to increase the capacity of lymphatic "highways" to carry and spread tumour cells throughout the body.
The study also reported that a cohort of patients on drugs often used to treat anxiety and high blood pressure (beta blockers that block the actions of adrenaline) were less likely to have secondary cancer that had spread from its primary site.
The primary role of norepinephrine, like adrenaline, is arousal, to make one more aware and focused by increasing amount of oxygen going to the brain. It triggers the release of glucose into the blood stream and increases blood pressure, heart rate, mental alertness, and respiratory rate. It also helps to shift blood flow away from areas where it might not be so crucial, like the skin, and toward more essential areas at the time, like the muscles, so you can flee the stressful scene.
Ill-Effects of Norepinepherine
Without its balance we develop problems involving our moods, energy levels (adrenal fatigue), blood pressure, and more. Just be aware that depression, anxiety, blood pressure problems, heart rate issues, and many other illness can be attributed, at least partially, to the deregulation of norepinephrine production and function in the body.
DHEA is a precursor to the sex hormones: namely testosterone and estrogens. It is often thought of as an adrenal hormone, which it is, however, DHEA is also made in the ovaries. When we measure DHEA we are eliciting information about both the adrenal glands and the ovaries. This is particularly important when DHEA levels are high. High levels of DHEA can mean that the adrenal glands are increasing DHEA production on response to stress or high glucose levels, or that the ovaries are increasing the production of DHEA as part of the PCOS cascade.
Cortisol suppresses the immune system, breaks down tissues and has a generally catabolic effect. However, these effects are balanced out by DHEA, which has the opposite effect - activating the immune system and building up tissues.
Ill-Effects of DHEA
DHEA is used to combat high cortisol levels and hence testosterone levels begin to drop. This can interfere with sperm production and cause erectile dysfunction or impotence. Chronic stress may make the urethra, prostate, and testes more prone to infection.
Neuropeptide S- decreases sleep and increases alertness and a sesnse of anxiety causing insomnia. Melatonin has been found to affect the levels of cortisol and the balance between DHEA and cortisol in circulation
Neuropepdite Y - Traditionally, it has been thought to play an important role in appetite, feeding behavior, and satiety, but more recent findings have implicated Neuropeptide Y in anxiety and stress, specifically, stress resiliency.
- Circulatory & Respiratory System
- Musculoskeletal system
- Digestive System
Digestion shuts down to make blood available to the rest of the body. These physical effects of stress lead to digestion-related problems.
Transit time in colon increases resulting in loose stools. Worsening of stomach ulcels happen due to reduced blood flow to the stomach.
- Reproductive System
- Immune System
3. Exhaustion/ recovery Stage
This stage of the general adaptation syndrome is characterized by issues such as burnout and exhaustion The body loses it resistance to fight stress and the body’s immune system that fights off disease and infection is weakened.
It is at this point that exhaustion sets in. It usually begins with reduction in DHEA gradually followed by low cortisol levels. Then the gland is so exhausted it can't make cortisol or DHEA. By this time patients are usually severely fatigued. Often these is loss of diurnal rhythm so no morning peak. This may also be associated with low melatonin at night.
The symptoms of adrenal deficiency or adrenal fatigue is the feeling of stress and weakness and fatigue from the lack of cortisol, which gives us energy. People experience hronic body aches and pains because cortisol is our natural anti-inflammatory in our body. Cortisol regulates our fluid levels and our electrolytes and when Cortisol is low we end up with low blood pressure. Because our fluids are low, we also end up with salt cravings. We also have cravings for sweets because our glucose is not regulated properly without Cortisol. We also have chronic allergies and asthma because our body's natural anti-inflammatory is depleted. Other symptoms of evolving adrenal gland fatigue include fatigue, sleep issues, inability to cope with stress, anxiety, nervousness, irritability and allergies.
The body is constantly striving to achieve balance. This becomes apparent when we observe how every cell, organ, system, and the entire organism as a whole is ultimately working to attain a stable internal environment in which the cells can function efficiently…otherwise known as homoeostasis. It is observed that the body would respond to any external biological source of stress with a predictable biological pattern in an attempt to restore the body’s internal homeostasis.
As is often said, stress isn’t about what happens to us, it’s how we react to it. This is very true. We don’t feel as stressed when we feel in control. Again, the emphasis is onfeel. Even illusory feelings of control can eliminate stress. (This is the secret to why idiots and crazy people may feel far less stress than those who see a situation clearly.) Anything that increases your perception of control over a situation — whether it actually increases your control or not — can substantially decrease your stress level.
There are 3 different types of responses to the stressors depending on how we perceive it...
1. Fight or flight Response - is what we just understood with the different stages of stress
2. Challenge Response - is what happens when you overcome stressor even after the alarm state or resistance phase. A challenge response gives you energy, helps you focus, increases motivation, and is not necessarily toxic to our hearts and our immune systems in the way that we might think a fight or flight response is. It’s the kind of stress response you have in situations where you need to rise to a challenge—and, importantly, you feel like you can do it. Not necessarily succeed or fix everything that’s wrong, but a basic confidence that you aren’t going to fall apart under the pressure. A challenge response, physiologically, looks a lot like what people experience when they exercise or when they report being in a positive flow state—which is actually a kind of stress response, despite being highly pleasurable. Your heart might be pounding, but you have less inflammation and a different ratio of stress hormones than when you experience fight-or-flight panic.
3. Tend and befriend Response - is associated with strong increases in the hormone oxytocin, which helps us bond and connect with others. When you have a tend and befriend response to stress, you’re inclined to be with friends and family; you are willing to ask for help from others; and most importantly, you feel motivated to support and care for others, too. In a way, it’s a “bigger-than-self” stress response. Your own stress, or the recognition that someone you care about is suffering, motivates you to strengthen relationships and support those you care about. An oxytocin-driven stress response has all sorts of health benefits, including reducing inflammation. In fact, oxytocin is a natural antioxidant and cardioprotective. Oxytocin also has a helpful effect on the cardiovascular system. Oxytocin acts as a natural inflammatory and it can help heart cells regenerate, something that would be extremely helpful after a heart attack in which you lose heart cells. This means that stress makes people more social.
WAYS TO OVERCOME STRESS
Everyone's stressors, reactions to stress, and ways of dealing with stress are different. It may take a little experimentation, a little time, and a little practice, but you'll find something that works for you. Keep trying -- and try not to stress about it. Lets first start by using the 5 senses and then using body and mid to overcome stress.
Different colours produce different psychological, emotional, and physical effects. Some colours are calming and can help you relax and release your worries like these...
- Yellow is sunny and cheerful but softer than red or orange. It’s a great colour to lift your spirits and combat stress.
- Green is restful and quiet. It’s a soothing colour that invites harmonious feelings that diffuse anxiety.
- Violet represents strength, peace and wisdom. It can encourage feelings of inner peace when worn. Decorating with violet can give your space a peaceful feeling that relieves stress.
- Lavender - With its calming, earthy, lightly sweet and freshly floral scent, it is widely beloved for its relaxing and balancing effects on both the physical and emotional bodies.
- Chamomile - is superior in addressing mental anxiety, paranoia and hostility.
- Vanilla - is the closest in fragrance and flavor to mothers' milk. With the ability to both soothe in tranquil relaxation and stimulate mental clarity, this rich aroma can vary in its therapeutic effects.
Listening to music can have a tremendously relaxing effect on our minds and bodies, especially slow, quiet classical music. This type of music can have a beneficial effect on our physiological functions, slowing the pulse and heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and decreasing the levels of stress hormone
Its more about what we eat that stimulates our tase buds and reduces stress. Some super foods to reduce stress are...
- Seeds - Flaxseed, pumpkin seeds, and sunflower seeds are all great sources of magnesium (as are leafy greens, yogurt, nuts, and fish). Loading up on the mineral may help regulate emotions. “Magnesium has been shown to help alleviate depression, fatigue, and irritability,”
- Pistachios - When you have an ongoing loop of negative thoughts playing in your mind, doing something repetitive with your hands may help silence your inner monologue. Think knitting or kneading bread—or even shelling nuts like pistachios or peanuts. The rhythmic moves will help you relax. Plus, the added step of cracking open a shell slows down your eating, making pistachios a diet-friendly snack. What’s more, pistachios have heart-health benefits. “Eating pistachios may reduce acute stress by lowering blood pressure and heart rate,” Mangieri says. “The nuts contain key phytonutrients that may provide antioxidant support for cardiovascular health.”
- Yoghurt - As bizarre as it may sound, the bacteria in your gut might be contributing to stress. Research has shown that the brain signals to the gut, which is why stress can inflame gastrointestinal symptoms; communication may flow the other way too, from gut to brain. A 2013 UCLA study among 36 healthy women revealed that consuming probiotics in yoghurt reduced brain activity in areas that handle emotion, including stress compared to people who consumed yoghurt without probiotics or no yoghurt at all. This study was small so more research is needed to confirm the results—but considering yogurt is full of calcium and protein in addition to probiotics, you really can’t go wrong by adding more of it to your diet.
- Oatmeal - If you’re already a carb lover, it’s likely that nothing can come between you and a doughnut when stress hits. First rule of thumb: Don’t completely deny the craving. According to MIT research, carbohydrates can help the brain make serotonin, the same substance regulated by antidepressants. But instead of reaching for that sugary bear claw, go for complex carbs. “Stress can cause your blood sugar to rise, Mangieri says, “so a complex carb like oatmeal won’t contribute to your already potential spike in blood glucose.”
- Beetroot - The British Dietetic Association says beetroot contains flavonoids called anthocyanins which are responsible for the deep pigments. Anthocyanins, the BDA says, can help with recovery from the stress of exercise during training and competition as well as helping to counter the effects of pollution on the body.
Different types of touch have a different impact on our stress levels
- Hug - Even a 20 seconds hug has a capacity of releasing Oxytocin which is a natural anti depressant
- Massage - A little pampering can rub your stress levels the right way. After several weeks of massage therapy, subjects' cortisol levels decreased by nearly one-third, on average. In addition to keeping cortisol under control, massage sessions reduce stress by promoting production of dopamine and serotonin, the same "feel good" hormones released when we socialize with pals or do something fun.
- Bath - Water has an innate soothing effect on the mind and body since it connects us back to our time in the womb. Schedule a regular time to soak in the tub.
- Acupressure - According to the ancient art of Jin Shin Jyutsu, you can harmonize your emotions and nourish your body by holding each of your fingers in sequence.
Then wrap one hand around the thumb of your other hand as shown in the illustration. Once you feel a pulse or two minutes has passed, reverse and enclose the opposite thumb with your other hand. Gradually, work your way through all five fingers.
6. Walking or Physical Exercise
But how does a physically stressful activity on the body actually end up relieving stress?
It’s a bit of a puzzle, but the long term benefits definitely compensate for the short term stress. For starters, it releases neurochemicals into the brain. The big ones being endorphins, dopamine, and norepinephrine. These chemicals are associated with better cognitive functioning, alertness and elevated moods. In addition to dumping feel good chemicals into your head, it also helps purge stress hormones from your body – cortisol and adrenaline.
If you start exercising, your brain recognizes this as a moment of stress. As your heart pressure increases, the brain thinks you are either fighting the enemy or fleeing from it. To protect yourself and your brain from stress, you release a protein called BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor). This BDNF has a protective and also reparative element to your memory neurons and acts as a reset switch. That’s why we often feel so at ease and things are clear after exercising and eventually happy.
At the same time, endorphins, another chemical to fight stress, is released in your brain. These endorphins tend to minimize the discomfort of exercise, block the feeling of pain and are even associated with a feeling of euphoria.
From a psychological perspective, exercise also gives you a way to distract yourself from focusing on daily stressors.
7. Sexual Activity
Yes sex is a major stress buster!!! Every time you reach orgasm, the hormone DHEA (Dehydroepiandrosterone) increases in response to sexual excitement and ejaculation. DHEA can boost your immune system, repair tissue, improve cognition, keep skin healthy, and even work as an antidepressant. Therefore, a health benefit of sex if you keep the orgasms coming, is potentially a longer life.
DHEA is responsible for the production of testosterone and estrogen not produced in the testes and ovaries
Both testosterone and estrogen levels experience a boost through regular sexual activity. Testosterone does more than just boost your sex drive, it helps fortify bones and muscles, and it keeps your heart in good working condition as well. In women, sex increases the levels of estrogen, which protects against heart disease
Studies have shown that brain signaling increases in the left side of the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for positive emotions, while activity decreases in the right side, responsible for negative emotions, Newman says. The other benefits of meditation, including increased self-awareness and acceptance, also contribute to improved overall well-being.
9. Mind Training
These are a simple set of habit developing methods. Their purpose is to help us choose about where our single processor brain will devote its finite resources as we process the world. If we scan for the negative first, our brain literally has no resources left over to see the things we are grateful for or the meaning embedded in our work. But if we scan the world for the positive, we can easily combat STRESS.
- ABC MODEL for reducing stress - When in a stress Activating event, STOP / PAUSE take a few deep Breaths and analyse your Beliefs then Control the Consequences with your appropriate Response instead of inappropriate Reaction. Note one such event from the past 24 hours in your Journal.
- Write Gratitude Journal - Write down three things you're grateful for that occurred over the last 24 hours. They don't have to be profound. It could be a really good cup of coffee or the warmth of a sunny day.
- Write Happiness Journal - Take one positive or happy experience from the past 24 hours and spend two minutes writing down every detail about that experience. The experience can be as simple as smiling to a stranger or having an ice-cream. As you remember it, your brain labels it as meaningful and deepens the imprint.
- Three good things with a twist - As in the word of Steve Jobs "You cant connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them backwards." Upon reflection we find that the events from the past which we later cherish in life are often the most negative ones when they happened. So why not start connecting the dots as and when they happen?
- Random Act of Kindness - Kindness can be expressed in many different ways. However the task here is to develop social connections as well. Hence this task need that we write a short thank you note or a compliment to a person with reason.
A sound sleep not only relaxes the ANS but also reduces the ill-effects of stress hormones by producing the hormone melatonin, which is released from the small gland at the base of the brain called the pineal gland, is known for its relationship with the sleep cycle. Melatonin has an antagonistic effect on cortisol, and the circadian rise in melatonin levels at night correlates with a drop in cortisol. Melatonin is also a hormone with great penetration into the nucleus of the cells and is one of the most important antioxidant hormones as it protects cellular (mitochondrial and nuclear) DNA from damage (Reiter 2002). Melatonin has been found to affect the levels of cortisol and the balance between DHEA and cortisol in circulation.
Sedative herbs such as hops, passionflower, poppy, and valerian can provide calming effects to reduce stress. The herbal lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) has been shown in a number of studies to reduce stress.
To cope up with stress - "Rule No. 1 is, don't sweat the small stuff. Rule No. 2 is, it's all small stuff. And if you can't fight and you can't flee, flow." Stress is like spice - in the right proportion it enhances the flavor of a dish. Too little produces a bland, dull meal; too much may choke you.