One in four working Canadians describe most of their days as “quite a bit” or “extremely stressful.” And if this survey had been conducted in 2020, that statistic might have been a tad higher!
While the body’s stress response actually improves mental and physical performance in the short term, chronic stress can cause trouble in our relationships and contribute to the development of chronic diseases.
- heart disease
- peptic ulcers
- irritable bowel syndrome
- autoimmune diseases
As we bid this stressful year adieu, checking in on your body’s stress burden and learning coping strategies to manage it could be the best thing you do to ensure your well-being in the year to come.
Stressing: The point
The stress response improves our mental and physical performance when we’re in danger. When faced with a tiger, for instance, our instincts kick in to either fight the beast or flee.
The sympathetic nervous system rapidly releases the neurotransmitters adrenalin and noradrenalin, and the stress hormone cortisol is released upon activation of a neuroendocrine network called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. This increases blood flow to the muscles, increases heart rate, and dilates the pupils to take in more of the scene (see “Stressing the good stuff”).
But in modern-day life, most of our tigers overstay their welcome and come cloaked in the guise of a heavy workload, mortgage payments, and caring for kids and aging parents. While these repeated and chronic stressors don’t necessarily stir up fear for survival, the body responds as if it were in danger.
Despite the fight-or-flight response enhancing performance during an acute stressor, we don’t have a physiologic mechanism that’s as effective for dealing with episodic and chronic stressors. In fact, prolonged activity of the HPA axis during ongoing stress has negative impacts on body function and is associated with depression, anxiety, and panic attack.
Stressing the difference
Acute stress is immediate and quickly resolved, such as getting into a fender bender, giving a work presentation, and sustaining a minor injury.
Episodic stress repeats itself, like having a never-ending to-do list from a demanding boss. This can make you feel tense and like you’re constantly putting out fires.
Chronic stress arises from serious, ongoing problems that might be outside of our control, such as processing childhood trauma, being subjected to racism, and caring for a parent with dementia.
Knowing the signs and symptoms of stress is your secret weapon for getting a head start on addressing the problem. Research has shown that stress affects the brain, immune system, digestive system, cardiovascular system, and endocrine systems, causing myriad emotional, physical, cognitive, and behavioural symptoms.
When you’re stressed, for instance, you might feel more irritated by minor inconveniences than usual, notice more hair on the shower floor, and find comfort at the bottom of your favourite vintage. But stress looks different on everyone.
Your body on stress
|Emotional symptoms||Cognitive symptoms||Physical signs||Behavioural symptoms|
|irritability||forgetfulness||insomnia||reliance on alcohol and substances|
|anxiety||racing thoughts||hair loss||avoiding responsibility|
|depression||poor concentration||low sexual desire||nail biting|
|mood swings||digestive issues||risky behaviour|
|high blood pressure|
|muscle tension and pain|
For predictable stressors, such as a yearly performance review or a visit from your less-than-cordial in-laws, prevention really is the best medicine. Putting a plan in place for how to deal with a stressor can help you weather the storm (see “Stress plan”).
But for the stressors that crop up without warning, it’s our coping style that makes the difference. If we magnify a problem and make it out to be more than it is, ruminate on it, or feel helpless, these negative coping strategies may actually intensify cortisol secretion and condition us to have an exaggerated physiologic stress response the next time we’re faced with a stressor.
But we can minimize the extent to which an unforeseen stressor causes us stress by addressing it directly, adopting healthy coping practices, and asking for help. These techniques minimize cortisol secretion and prevent stress from turning into a chronic pain condition.
Reaching for junk food, caffeine, alcohol, and cigarettes are common but detrimental coping mechanisms. Stress is a key risk factor in the development of addictions, which is partially mediated by cortisol’s interactions with the brain’s reward system.
Keeping caffeine intake to a minimum is a good starting place, as caffeine use is associated with higher stress and anxiety, and both stress and nicotine encourage higher alcohol use.
Be mindful of your food cravings as well—high levels of stress change eating patterns and increase consumption of highly palatable foods, such as processed foods loaded with sugar, fat, and salt, which are often detrimental to health.
Enjoying regular, nutritious meals is foundational for preventing and managing stress. When you sit down for your meals, feel and express gratitude for the meal you’re about to enjoy. Writing a daily gratitude list for 14 days has been shown to increase happiness and reduce negative emotions.
And once you dig in, check to see if you’re chewing your food well or swallowing after a few cursory chomps. Chewing has been shown to lower cortisol and promote stress relief.
Call in the professionals
Supplements and herbs can also help your body cope with stress. Insomnia is a common sign of stress, and it can be caused by changes in the HPA axis that hinder melatonin release.
Supplemental melatonin may help re-establish a natural circadian rhythm and improve sleep onset. Herbs known as adaptogens are also helpful for adapting to stress and can reduce fatigue, decrease depression and anxiety, and enhance cognitive function by bringing the HPA axis back into working order. B vitamins help reduce stress and improve energy production.
Top 3 herbal adaptogens Panax ginseng has been shown to reduce the subjective perception of stress and improve performance and memory.
Ashwagandha can reduce cortisol, stress, and anxiety, and might be indicated for those who also struggle with depression, diabetes, high cholesterol, thyroid disease, and male infertility.
Rhodiola rosea is traditionally used to help cope with psychological stress and is helpful for managing symptoms of burnout.
To optimize concentration at work, consider keeping bacopa or L-theanine at your desk. L-theanine is a compound found in tea leaves, which improves cognitive performance and alertness while reducing heart rate during acute stress.
If your social anxiety rears its ugly head, consider bringing a kava-infused punch to the party. This herb is helpful for anxiety disorder and can be enjoyed as a tongue-tingling beverage.
As always, consult with your health care practitioner to determine what’s safe and effective for you specifically. Kava, for instance, has been known to cause serious liver damage in those with a particular gene.
Working with a practitioner can also help address stress-related diseases such as thyroid disorders, hormonal imbalance, autoimmunity, and gut dysfunction, to ensure you’re facing your body’s stress burden head-on.
Stressing the good stuff
- The fight-or-flight response is a built-in survival mechanism that increases mental and physical performance to fight dangerous animals, avoid car accidents, and even rock a work presentation.
- Certain stressful situations, such as taking a test, can improve memory.
- Positive stress at work, like a “good challenge,” is associated with reduced fatigue, increased happiness, and a better sense of meaning.
[ Stress plan
|Source of stress||Positive coping mechanism||Put into action|
|visiting with difficult in-laws||establish boundaries||Before your visit, decide which conversations and activities you’ll remove yourself from to protect your emotional well-being. Ask your spouse to support these boundaries.|
|feeling overworked||address the problem||Request a meeting with your boss to request an extension on a project, renegotiate your salary, and agree on a new work-life balance.|
|going through a divorce||art therapy||Consider taking a painting, singing, or dance therapy class to process grief, anger, and complicated feelings. Singing has been shown to reduce cortisol and increase positive emotions.|
|pre-party social anxiety||deep/diaphragmatic breathing||Taking deep belly breaths for 5 to 10 minutes can reduce stress and salivary cortisol and activate the parasympathetic (calming) nervous system to simulate relaxation.|
|fear of public speaking||counting||Before your presentation, use this 5-4-3-2-1 counting technique to de-escalate anxiety and become grounded:
· Acknowledge 5 things you can see.
· Acknowledge 4 things you can touch.
· Acknowledge 3 things you can hear.
· Acknowledge 2 things you can smell.
· Acknowledge 1 thing you can taste.
|passing of a loved one||counselling and/or prayer||Connecting with your spiritual beliefs and seeking professional help can help you cope with loss and develop resilience when you return to day-to-day life.|
For more information, check out our Web Exclusive Unwrapping Holiday Stressors