I’ve got a confession to make. I’ve been feeling pretty stressed out lately. I’ve come off the back of a 3-month summer break (complete with relaxing beach holiday) and now I’m back into the daily grind of university, work and exercise. If you’re human, you’ve probably felt stress before. In fact, you might be feeling stressed right now. When am I going to get the groceries done? How am I ever going to meet that deadline? When will I get a chance to see Black Panther?! No matter how trivial the source of your stress is, it has serious effects on the body. In fact, stress related illnesses are becoming increasingly prevalent in our society. What are they? How do we deal with them? And who is most at risk?
Stress in the Palaeolithic Era
Unlike today, during the Palaeolithic era, traffic jams, office tiffs and strained bank accounts weren’t our main causes of stress. Back then, the sort of things that stressed us out were lions trying to eat us or other cave men trying to steal our food. When we’re faced with stress our amygdala (a part of the brain) is activated, signalling the release of adrenaline and cortisol (two dominate stress hormones). These hormones stimulate what is now known as the ‘fight or flight’ response which prepares the body for action. Blood pumps to the muscles and our breathing/heart rates increase. We are ready to run away from that tiger (flight), or fight to the death for that last piece of meat carcass. Once the stressor is resolved, the amygdala stops firing, adrenaline and cortisol lower and breathing/heart rates slow.
Today, it’s a different story. We can no longer overcome stressors by fighting or fleeing. You can’t fight your boss when he says he wants you to work through the weekend (unless of course you want to get fired, and possibly end up in jail). You can’t solve your financial issue by simply running away (unless of course you definitely want to go to jail). This results in a prolonged period of ‘fight or flight’ high stress state. Stress hormones all high all the time, is no good for health.
Stress Today, Tomorrow, and the Next Day…
With prolonged stress, cortisol dominates the hormone profile. It stimulates the release of glucose into the blood, so it can be used up as energy when fighting or fleeing. Today, we aren’t fighting and fleeing. Instead, we are sitting disgruntled at our desks. The excess glucose, that isn’t getting used up, is then deposited as fat. This is how stress is associated with weight gain and obesity.
Cortisol also increases motivation. Originally, this motivation was used to run faster or punch harder. Now, it increases motivation to eat. High calorie, high fat and high sugar foods stimulate the reward centre in the brain, helping alleviate the negative emotions associated with stress. When we finish our calorific lunch, our brain says, ‘that felt good, let’s do it again’. So, we reach for a donut, or a packet of chips, whatever we can get our hands on. Evidently, the weight gets packed on. It sits on vital organs, causing inflammation, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and more.
Taking a Chill Pill
All this information about how bad stress is, is probably stressing you out. It stresses me out! Don’t worry, I’m not going to leave you high and dry. There are a few coping mechanisms and strategies that you can use to help reduce stress, lower cortisol and overall, lead a better-quality life.
There is evidence to suggest that healthy diets that are high in fruits, vegetables, healthy fats are associated with better mental health. Staying away from highly processed, fatty, deep fried comfort foods is a step in the right direction. The food we eat effects the type of microbiota that reside in our gut. Excitingly, recent studies have shown a link between gut health and mental illness/stress. Therefore, to help our brain, we must first help our gut!
Hyperventilating helps turn our friend the amygdala on, starting the vicious stress cycle. Most of us, without even realising it, are hyperventilating, just a little, all the time (if we’re feeling stressed that is). You can try it yourself. Set the timer to 15 seconds and count how many times you breathe in this period. Multiply the result by 4 to get your ‘breathes per minute’. If it exceeds 14, you are hyperventilating. This hyperventilation causes a build-up of carbon dioxide in the blood, and lowers oxygen, which activates the amygdala. One strategy to avoid this is to slow down the breath with abdominal breathing techniques. This helps switch off the amygdala and reactivate the frontal lobe, where rational thinking can occur. If there is a particularly stressful event you have in mind, you can practice visualising this event, with abdominal breathing. This will help train your body to destress when the situation arises.
By employing strategies such as this, we are able to help negate some of the harmful coping strategies that we’re all guilty off. Some classic ones you might be familiar with include alcohol, binge eating, avoidance, irritability and my all-time favourite, whinging. By replacing these habits with healthier ones, we can improve not only our mental, but also physical well-being. Not to mention, improve your performance, in all areas of life, even under pressure.
Remember that if you are struggling with stress, it is always appropriate to seek help. Services such as headspace and beyond blue can help you work through stress and anxiety and stay happy 🙂