Mind Meets Body - The effects of stress on our physical and mental health.
Written By : Sarah Jean Henderson
When was the last time you felt stressed? With over 50% of the population reporting feelings of overwhelming stress in their daily lives*1, it’s probable that it isn’t too difficult to recall.
Many of us are aware that prolonged periods of stress can have damaging effects, both mental and physical, but few of us understand why, or what to do with this knowledge.
So, let’s talk about it.
Why is long term stress so damaging to our mind, body, and general wellbeing? And what can we do to help ourselves effectively manage stress whilst finding balance within the ebb and flow of our everyday lives?
First, let’s look at what’s actually going on in the body when we experience stress.
What happens when we experience stress?
“Stress arises when individuals perceive that they cannot adequately cope with the demands being made on them or with threats to their well-being” R.S. Lazarus (1966)
Stress is our body’s response to danger – whether it’s real (like being chased by a bear) or perceived (like worrying about something that hasn’t happened yet).
In the early days of human existence, when the main stress stimulus was life-threatening danger like predators, hunting, and fighting – all based entirely on survival, and all very much worth the raise in heart rate – our bodies developed an innate system that’s entire purpose is to help us navigate dangerous situations and keep us alive: the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS).
When we encounter danger, a signal is released in the part of our brain that perceives fear, the amygdala. The amygdala responds to this by sending signals to the hypothalamus, which then activates the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), instructing the body to release the relevant hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) to respond to stress.
The ANS is comprised of two systems:
Fight or flight/fight-flight-freeze, responsible for controlling our body’s response to danger, medically referred to as the sympathetic nervous system.
Rest and digest/the parasympathetic nervous system, which plays an important role in maintaining balance (homeostasis) within the body.
When our bodies feel we are in danger (whether its real or perceived), our fight or flight stress response engages: our pupils dilate so we can take in more of our surroundings; our muscles tense and tremble, ready to take action; we breathe quicker as our heart rate and blood pressure increase, helping to spread nutrients and oxygen to our major muscle groups that will help us either fight or flee.
Have you ever noticed that your digestion feels sluggish and uncomfortable after a particularly stressful situation? Well, whilst our body is in this stress response, it’s trying to reserve energy by prioritising functions that are going to keep us alive in that moment, meaning other aspects, such as digestion, hormone production, tissue repair, and immune function, slow down or halt completely.
So if this is our body’s way of protecting us, why can it so easily do us harm?
The optimal function of the ANS is a balance between the two systems: when we encounter danger, our sympathetic nervous system activates, and when the danger subsides, we move back into our parasympathetic nervous system so that attention can return to prioritising normal function.
Being in a state of high alert, whilst extremely useful in the face of danger, isn’t beneficial long term. When stress moves from short term to chronic, our body essentially spends less time maintaining balance and ensuring all of its vital systems are functioning optimally, and more time believing it is in immediate danger and acting accordingly, which leaves a lot of room for general well-being to fall by the wayside.
Chronic stress has been linked to various mental and physical health conditions, including*2:
- Depression and anxiety
- Gastrointestinal problems such as GERD, IBS, and ulcerative colitis
- Cardiovascular disease
- Immune dysfunction
- Sexual dysfunction
- Acne, psoriasis, alopecia
Stress in modern-day society
Stress isn’t inherently bad. In fact, in small doses stress is useful. Not only does it help keep us alive through danger, but it can motivate us, aid us in performing better under pressure, achieving goals, and short bursts of stress have even been proven to increase immune function.
The trouble is that in the frenzy of modern day’s fast-paced society, the main causes of us slipping into our fight or flight response are no longer life-threatening, but instead come from aspects of our every day – such as being late, or nervous for an event (which are considerably less dangerous than being chased by a bear). Contrary to actual life-threatening instances, these perceived threats often don’t have a clear start and finish and generally bleed into one another, which means we may see ourselves moving from one stressful circumstance to the next, never having the chance to return to our resting state.
So what can we do to help ourselves?
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Victor Frankl
It’s clear to say that we cannot avoid potentially stressful situations, but what we can do is gradually change the way we respond to them.
Whilst the stress stimulus (such as traffic, a bad day at work, or an overflowing inbox) may be beyond our control, our response to the stimulus (how we react in the moment) is largely within our control, as much as it can often feel the opposite. If we can intercept our knee-jerk reaction to a stress stimulus before it sends us into fight or flight, we can remain in control of our reaction to whatever it is we’re experiencing, thus consciously reducing our stress levels. Here are some steps to consider next time you notice yourself becoming stressed:
Notice and Pause: Neurologists say that emotions have a 90-second physiological lifespan in the body. “When a person has a reaction to something in their environment, there’s a 90-second chemical process that happens… For those chemicals to totally flush out of the body it takes less than 90 seconds… After that, any remaining emotional response is just the person choosing to stay in that emotional loop” writes neurologist Jill Bolte. What this suggests is that if we pause and simply notice the emotion (in this case, stress) rather than interacting with it by allowing a series of thoughts to follow, the emotion will dissipate on its own. We need to notice the stress arising in our body, and resist the urge to jump to the worst-case scenario narrative our minds want to create. By taking a moment to catch our thoughts before they run away with themselves, we can act from a wiser, more grounded place that allows us to formulate healthier responses.
Identify: We can refrain from giving our stress power and still identify what it is that’s distressing us. Identifying what exactly it is we are feeling stressed about can help us rationalise our thought process and take steps towards accepting and navigating the situation at hand.
Shift Perspective: Stress can quickly cloud our judgement. Asking ourselves clarifying questions can help us rationalise and put things into a more logical perspective when we feel ourselves becoming swept up in a negative narrative:
- What is the worst that can happen?
- Can I solve this problem by worrying about it?
- Are my thoughts based on fact, or imaginary scenarios?
- Is there another way I could look at this?
- How can I best support myself through this?
Be compassionate: Criticising ourselves in times of stress only ever exacerbates the situation. Treating ourselves with self-compassion and understanding, just as we would a friend in need, can take a great deal of pressure off our shoulders in already stressful circumstances. This is especially important when we begin the process of trying to change the way we respond to stress. Imagine trying to learn to write with your left hand after a lifetime of using your right; learning something new takes time! Whilst in the process of retraining our minds, we must move forward with patience, forgiving ourselves if we take a step back, and celebrating every step small forward.
Additional ways to manage stress
Mindfulness Practices such as meditation, breathwork, and yoga all encourage us back into our parasympathetic nervous system simply by slowing down: the breath, our thoughts, and our movement. Introducing even just 5 minutes of mindfulness practice into your morning and evening routine can help to build self-awareness and guide the body back to its natural resting state.
Physical Activity reduces the stress hormones in the body and increases endorphins, lifting our emotional state and often clearing away residual feelings of stress. Being physically active also promotes better sleep, which in turn lowers our stress levels by strengthening our emotional threshold.
CBD can have positive effects on reducing and regulating stress by interacting with our endocannabinoid system (ECS). Studies*3 indicate that one way CBD aids in stress reduction and regulation is by inhibiting the enzyme that metabolises the endocannabinoid Anandamide (AEA). Both CBD and Anandamide have been shown to have anxiolytic (anxiety-reducing) effects. Read more about CBD and wellness here: https://www.karmacoastcbd.co.uk/cbd-for-mind-body-and-soul-wellness
Social Support plays a crucial role in managing our everyday stress levels and helps us feel supported and held in our daily lives. Establishing connections with people that we trust and can rely on in times of need can ease stress by providing us with the knowledge that whatever it is we’re going through, we need not brave it alone.
Professional Support is something to consider when we find that stress is becoming an unmanageable and overwhelming issue in our life, and is clearly negatively impacting or inhibiting our day-to-day. Visiting the GP to rule out any underlying health issues that could be contributing to symptoms of stress, and looking into talking therapies such as counselling and CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), are a great place to start.
Sarah Jean is a writer and psychotherapist in training. Find more of her work here (www.theoceanleadshome.com)
Anatomy Image source: https://www.healthline.com/health/stress/effects-on-body