This month’s blog post is about stress, as April is Stress Awareness Month. So what is stress exactly, how does it affect us and what can we do to prevent its harmful effects?
What is stress?
Stress is any factor that affects physical or mental well being. The response to a stressor depends on the individual: what stresses one person may not stress another. Acute stress can be beneficial and it wouldn’t exist if it hadn’t improved our chances of survival in some way, but chronic stress can be detrimental to health. So the idea is not to try to eliminate stress from your life (that would be stressful in itself!), but to minimise your exposure and manage your response to the unhealthy stressors.
So How Does Stress Affect Us?
The somatic nervous system conducts impulses from the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) to skeletal muscles, which gives us conscious (or voluntary control) over our movements. The autonomic nervous system regulates involuntary movements (ones that we don’t even think about making, e.g. breathing and peristalsis in the gut). The autonomic nervous system comprises the sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions. Every organ in the body has a nerve supply to both of these and they have opposing effects: the sympathetic to prepare the body to respond to stressful situations and the parasympathetic to return it to normal, or calm it back down again.
Stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system has the following effects:
- Increase in heart rate and the strength of contraction
- Increase in blood supply to the heart
- Increase in blood supply to the skeletal muscles
- Sustained contraction of the spleen to boost the circulating blood volume
- Reduction in blood supply to the digestive and urinary systems in order to divert blood to the heart, muscles and brain
- Dilation of bronchioles to increase the volume of air that can be inspired and expired
- Dilation of the pupils.
Stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system has the opposite effects.
Some of the benefits of stress are:
- Focus (e.g. you don’t want to be worrying about other things when you have a sabre-tooth tiger bearing down on you)
- Improved physical performance (stress readies us for fight or flight)
- Motivation (e.g. at a very basic level, the stress of hunger motivates you to eat)
- Decision making (e.g. we tend to stop procrastinating if a deadline is looming).
As you can see, in the short term, stress can have advantageous, performance-enhancing effects. Chronic stress on the other hand has wide-ranging negative effects on physical and mental health.
The physical signs and symptoms of long-term stress include:
- Digestive disorders (e.g. indigestion, ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome)
- Headaches and/or migraine
- Heart problems (e.g. palpitations, angina, stroke, cardiac arrest)
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Impaired immunity
- Muscular tension
- Panic attacks
- Reproductive problems (e.g. dysmenhorroea, amenorrhoea, infertility)
- Skin problems (e.g. psoriasis, eczema, acne).
The psychological signs and symptoms of long-term stress include:
- Anger and aggression
- Appetite gain or loss
- Impaired concentration, decision making and memory
- Loss of libido
- Self harm
- Substance abuse
- Weight gain or loss.
How Can You Prevent and Manage Chronic Stress?
The good news is that there are a lot of strategies available for preventing and managing chronic stress and the associated detrimental effects. Key to that is to ensure that you look after yourself and not just others, otherwise you are at risk of becoming depleted and stressed. Find ways to do more of what you enjoy and what makes you feel good in order to keep filling yourself up. It is not selfish because it will empower you and enable you to give more. You cannot serve from an empty vessel. I talk more about this in one of my blog posts on mindfulness, so click here if you would like to read it.
Other strategies include the following:
- Having a healthy, balanced diet, including avoiding sugar and refined carbohydrates
- Avoiding or reducing consumption of stimulants such as caffeine and alcohol
- Regular physical activity, ideally including resistance training (e.g. weights), stretching (e.g. yoga) and aerobic exercise (e.g. swimming, running, cycling)
- Relaxation techniques (e.g. massage, mindfulness, breathing techniques, meditation, visualisation)
- Improving time management skills (I can recommend 15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management by Kevin Kruse)
- Good sleep hygiene (see my blog post about this)
- Talking to someone, whether that is a friend, family member, colleague or anyone else you feel you can confide in
- Cognitive behavioural therapy
- Medication, if necessary, under the care of a medical practitioner.
If you would like to book a massage to help you prevent the ill effects of chronic stress or to get back on an even keel, do get in touch, I would love to be able to help you optimise your sense of well being.