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I recently conducted a mini-survey of my community to find out what they wanted to learn more about and what aspect of their health they wanted to work on. It wasn’t surprising just how pervasive stress, fatigue and anxiety featured throughout my community. It’s also what I see in my naturopathic practice and it’s something that I personally am always aware of. Stress is ubiquitous in our busy modern lives – especially if you’re in the season of your life where you’re managing the dance of work and family. There are so many factors that can spread us too thin.
In this week’s blog, I wanted to take a dive into the science of stress: what’s actually occuring in our bodies in both the short term and long term. And I’m also going to open up on my thoughts and observations of how stress can be used as a spiritual invitation to transform aspects of our minds and hearts.
The Back Story on Stress
Stress is the body’s way of communicating and responding to signals from our internal and external environments. Your cells, tissues and organs are communicating with one another all the time via your nervous and hormone systems. They are sending messages, signals, alerts and alarms all in the interest of balance and keeping your body safe and functional.
The term “stress” was coined by Dr Hans Selye, who was a scientist who researched the physiological response of animals to their environments. Selye discovered in rats that any kind of physical insult resulted in the same physiological response: activated adrenal glands, suppression of immune function, and bleeding stomach ulcers.
What is the stress response?
When you’re in a situation that is perceived as a threat, your brain activates multiple body systems into action via the “stress cascade”. Nerves travel from the brain to all the hormone glands: the adrenals, thyroid, sex glands (ovaries or testicles), pineal gland, thymus and pancreas. Each organ configures itself to help you do things beyond your average capacity: to make you aware of the danger then think and act fast.
In evolutionary terms, this incredible system is exquisitely tuned to keep you out of harm’s way. But it is designed to only swing into action when danger is present. It needs to then switch back over to the relaxation response for balance to be restored. The adaptive changes your body makes to regain balance is called “allostasis”. I’m particularly fond of this word, it means achieving stability through change.
What are considered stress triggers?
|Physical Stressors||Mental and Emotional Stressors|
Nutritional imbalances or deficiencies
Drugs (prescription and recreative)
Exercise (esp. high performance)
Lack of sleep
Fear (the most potent activator of the stress response)
Negative emotions (e.g. feeling upset, hatred, anger, apprehension)
Unsupportive social environment
Positive emotions (being in love, anticipation)
The Brain & Nervous System’s Role in Stress
The adrenals typically get centre stage recognition when we think of stress. Yet, our ability to self-regulate via our perception is not a tale as often told. The beauty, power and inconvenience of managing stress are that’s it’s 100% our responsibility.
We can be guided, supported and encouraged, but the work is ours alone. Understanding how three key centres of your brain work together to create your perception of stress can be very useful:
The Lizard Brain – The Amygdala
The amygdala is a region in the brain stem and is the seat the instinct. It’s continuously assessing our environments for danger and potential harm. When it perceives a threat, it will flood our bodies with adrenaline and cortisol to activate “fight or flight mode”. It will also send signals to other parts of our brain called the hypothalamus and pituitary. These glands are the conductors of many of the hormones in our body, including the hormones that regulate your menstrual cycle.
The Monkey Brain – The Limbic System
The limbic system is where emotion and motivation lives. The instinct of this brain is to keep you in your comfort zone, stay safe and form close connections with others. If we let the monkey brain lead, we get stuck in a rut, repeating the same patterns over and over again. It’s fearful of trying new things that will create change and thus take us beyond comfort. If you’re experiencing conflict with any of your primary relationships (such as your partner, parents, closest friends), your limbic system will raise the alarm of what psychologists refer to as “primal panic”. Us humans, we are wired for connection. When there are signs of instability to connect to those we hold most dear, your stress response will be activated. The value and importance of the health of your relationships are never to be underestimated.
The Healer’s Brain – The Prefrontal Cortex
The pre-frontal cortex is what separates us humans from many other members of the animal kingdom. This region of the brain is extraordinarily powerful. It’s how we can visualise new realities, and it’s where our mindset lives. The healer’s brain can see life as an interwoven matrix of which we’re but a part of. It has the power to see what is ego and what is our true nature. The pre-frontal cortex can see that we’re a soul having a human experience. It’s focused on transformation and growth. When we’re able to access our healer’s brain, we can lean into the discomforts, into the unknown and have faith that we’ll be okay. It is from here that we can have transcendental experiences. All spiritual practices, such as mindfulness, meditation and prayer, serve the purpose of strengthening this part of ourselves.
Leading with your healer’s brain is where the magic happens. It’s terrifying, exhilarating, confronting and mind-expanding all rolled up into one.
Stress & The Hormone System
Now that you understand how profoundly connected our nervous systems and our mindsets are for registering and mediating stress let’s take a look at the other side of the equation: the hormone system.
When the nervous system registers changes in your internal or external environment, it will strike up a conversation with your adrenal glands. These hormone-producing glands are roughly the size of walnuts and sit atop your kidneys. The adrenals mediate many essential bodily functions related to:
- Blood pressure
- Electrolyte balance
- Immunity (stress can suppress the immune system)
- AND rapid and long term response to stress
To understand the nitty-gritty of the stress cascade, it’s essential to understand the major players.
Adrenaline and Noradrenaline
These hormones are released lightning fast in the presence of stress. When in a stressful situation, your body is helping you access extra oxygen, which allows you to respond more quickly. These hormones help do that by increasing your breathing and heart rate to get more blood to the muscles and lungs to help bring more oxygen into the blood. It will also constrict your blood vessels to increase your blood pressure to get that oxygen around the body faster. Your pupils dilate, so you’re able to take in more visual information around you. They also liberate glucose (sugar) from the muscle and liver, which allows your body to produce energy fast.
Cortisol is released from the adrenals after Adrenaline and Noradrenaline. It’s a steroid hormone, just like your other reproductive hormones (estrogen, progesterone and testosterone) and mediates a tremendous number of processes in the body. It communicates with all the other hormone glands by “telling” them about the stressful situation, which allows them to respond appropriately. When in a “high-stress mode”, your body will down-regulate reproductive function, suppress immunity, prevent bone formation and encourage the body to hold on to energy which is then laid down as fat stores.
Cortisol is essential for a healthy circadian rhythm, it rises during the day and drops at night. However, if there is chronic physical, mental, emotional or spiritual stress, this can disrupt the typical pattern of cortisol. As you can see by the diagram, the power of sleep is never to be underestimated! When you’re able to get good quality rest, this allows cortisol to regulate.
Understanding the Spectrum of Stress of the Different Adaptive Patterns
Not all stress is bad! In fact, when you’re in environments that are challenging, but we have the skills and reserves to respond to the challenge, you can feel focused, motivated and experience a healthy tension. This is referred to as being in the “flow” or “you” zone or “peak performance”. If there was nothing to challenge you, you would likely feel bored and stagnant. Stress can catalyse significant transformations in your creativity, your ability to think of different solutions, positive psychological re-building and healing.
The key is balancing periods of being entirely switched on and engaged with rest so that you’re body, nervous and hormonal systems have the chance to switch gears into replenishing mode. If you’re able to flow between the two modes, you’re in a state of healthy equilibrium. Issues arise when you’re unable to balance the two modes.
When Stress Becomes Distress
Distress, on the other hand- defined as ‘an emotional or physical state of pain, sorrow, misery, suffering, or discomfort’ – results from long-term chronic exposure to unrelenting stress. When distress is endured for too long, we can become overwhelmed, disconnected, lonely, afraid, confused, anxious and depressed.
Health issues arise when cortisol is chronically elevated and not punctuated with appropriate rests to allow melatonin to work its restorative magic on you. Circulating hormones will not return to their normal, balanced levels. Initially they stay in a state of arousal. However, with time, cortisol levels will decline or flatten, which is experienced as fatigue and exhaustion. If left unchecked, can progress to exhaustion, panic, anxiety, anger, burnout and breakdown.
It’s important to remember that the stress response is designed to keep you safe in short term situations. This finely tuned physiological response has been refined and adapted over hundreds of thousands of years. Our ancestors had a lot of stress to deal with, however evolutionarily biologists point out this would have been confined to shorter periods. What we’re experiencing now is that our stress response systems are having to adapt to a very different environment than what they evolved through.
Looking back to Hans Selye’s work with animals and stress, his research found that when animals developed a continual reliance on the “fight, flight or freeze” response, their ability to cope and respond to stress was dampened to the stressor. What used to spark them into immediate action no longer did. Their hormonal system stopped listening. It now took a much higher level of stimulus and threat to elicit a response. This is not your body becoming lazy. Down-regulation is its way of self-preserving, and it’s after a long period of stress.
Chronically activated adrenals affect your entire being, most notably your:
- Heart and cardiovascular system
- Immunity and inflammatory response
- All your other hormones (thus has a profound effect on fertility and the menstrual cycle)
If you would love to be guided through a stress healing program, my 21-day online course The Peace Protocol is designed to do exactly that.
How do I know how much stress is affecting me?
If you’ve been following my work for a while, you’ll know that I take a very holistic and integrated approach to health challenges. And an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure! So knowing your stress load and being able to adjust your self-care routine accordingly is excellent medicine.
In my clinical practice, I use standardised assessments, including the DASS, Social Readjustment Scale or Perceived Stress Scale. In cases of severe or chronic stress, it’s worthwhile discussing with your naturopath or holistic doctor if the following tests are indicated to assess the influence of the stress on your body:
- blood pressure
- cholesterol, HDL
- C–reactive protein
- dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) sulphate
- cortisol (in overnight urine)
- norepinephrine and epinephrine (in overnight urine)
YOU are More Powerful than Stress
There is a place within you that is still and quiet: your wellspring of inner peace. No matter how stressed, anxious, fatigued and weary you feel, you can touch this place of rest. When we learn to detach from our busy minds and tune into our hearts, we can change the stress response in a great way.
In case that sounds a little too spiritual for you, research confirms that people who recover quickly from stress overload tend to have the following attributes: a positive mental attitude, acceptance of themselves and others, fulfilling relationships while retaining their own autonomy, beliefs and principles, the ability to create and shape their own environment conducive to personal health and happiness, a purpose in life and a sense of personal growth. Theses people can pursue their goals and realise their potential. They have good nutritional status and a balanced lifestyle. It’s important to remember just how powerful you are and you have a huge amount of agency over the way your body responds to stress.
If you enjoyed ‘Stress: An Eye-Opening Exploration of Science, Spirit and Healing Alignment”, check out these other posts and resources:
- Withania :: Operating from a Calmer Source of Energy
- Delegation & Embracing Our Limits
- Mental Health: Small Changes, Big Shifts
- How can we be generous without burning ourselves out?
- What To Do When Anxiety Floods Us
- Holistic Treatment & Root Causes of Hypothyroidism
- Five Gentle Strategies for Biohacking Stress & Preventing Burnout
- “Why am I tired all the time?”: 11 Possible Causes of Your Fatigue
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Healing Stress References & Resources
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