What is Stress?
Stress is an emotionally disruptive or upsetting condition occurring in response to external influences, which is capable of affecting our physical health characterized by increased heart rate, a rise in blood pressure, muscular tension and possibly depression or anxiety.
- Stress started out when we were afraid of something eating us. Jurassic Park.
- Then it became the fear of dying at the hand of other men. Attila the Hun
- And now it’s caused by someone who aggravates us.
Our Physical Reaction to Stress
- The brain sends a message throughout the body that something undesirable has happened. (20-50 small to large reactions each day.)
- The adrenal glands receive the message and release the hormone cortisol.
- The presence of cortisol triggers the release of fats and sugars into the bloodstream, which is sent to key organs and muscles to produce energy to either fight or run (flight).
- Heart rate increases and blood pressure rises.
- Muscles contract as they prepare for action.
- There is increased perspiration designed to keep the muscles cool and working efficiently.
- Breathing accelerates to get the lungs ready to provide more oxygen for the muscles and the brain.
- The cortisol and adrenaline also stimulate the brain to sharpen focus and concentrate on the threat.
- Blood is transported away from the skin in order to reduce blood loss in the case of injury. (hence the expression, “He was so scared, he was as white as a ghost.)
- The level of good bacteria in the intestines declines and the body becomes more acidic. Blood is not available for digestion.
- The cortisol hormone also causes a release of hormones by the pituitary gland, which lowers our immune response. (Increased stress causes susceptibility to colds, flu and chronic disease.)
- Impaired digestion and increased acid can cause calcium to be taken from the bones in order to balance our pH (acid-alkaline). This contributes to osteoporosis.
As a result of these bodily changes, the following conditions can happen if the body continues to be under stress:
- Ulcers can be formed in the stomach (bacteria also causes many ulcers). Other digestive problems can also occur.
- Cortisol can increase the formation of canker sores around the mouth.
- Repetitive stress injuries can increase.
- The immune system is suppressed, allowing us to catch more colds and flu.
- Psoriasis can be caused by a protein released during stressful times.
- Memory may be impaired due to a cortisone type hormone interfering with brain function.
- Osteoporosis can develop as calcium is continually taken from the bones.
- Excessive release of fats and sugars can contribute to the development of diabetes.
- Blood clotting, high blood pressure and increased cholesterol can lead to heart attacks and strokes.
- A reduced immune system can lower the body’s defenses and contribute to the development of cancer.
These physical reactions can lead to the following emotional responses:
– Feeling impatient – Poor self image/esteem
– Being irritable – Impaired judgment
– Over excited – Prone to mistakes
– Feeling sick – Difficulty dealing with people
– Anxious – Depressed
What are the Causes of Stress?
Stress comes in many different shapes, sizes and degrees of impact. It can be a traumatic external event, an accumulation of small events or something we create in our own minds based on the pressures we experience or imagine. The following is a list of some of the well-known triggers for stress:
- Death of a spouse, family member or close friend
- Getting married
- Money problems
- Raising children
- Difficulties in a relationship
- Difficulties at work
- Separation or divorce
- Legal problems
- Public speaking
- Loss of your job
- Driving or traveling delays and problems
- Fear of bodily harm in your neighborhood
- An injury or accident of some kind
- A downturn in health for you or someone close to you
- Child leaving home
- Change in job
- Changes in job responsibilities or work procedures
- Large expenditures (house, car, schooling)
- Aging and fear of death
- Environmental pollutants
- Excessive noise
- Inadequate sleep
- Excessive exercise
- Foods that are toxic or over-stimulating
- This is almost an overwhelming list, but it illustrates the reason why we usually have 20-50 stressful encounters per day.
- It also points out why it is so important to have a strategy or plan for dealing with stress.
- How many people feel they have a good plan for avoiding and coping with stress?
- Share with one of your neighbors some of the things you now do to avoid or cope with stress.
Is Stress Avoidable?
- Having raised your level of stress with all of this information, it is very important to add that almost all of these problems can be avoided and/or managed.
- However, if we don’t understand stress, we may not be motivated to do the things that need to be done to avoid it or manage it.
- How many people just learned something important about stress that they didn’t know before?
- How many people would like to do more to avoid and manage stress?
The Impact of Stress on Chronic Health Problems
- Alcohol, tobacco and other substance abuse: Problems dealing with stress can lead to an increase in the consumption of substances such as alcohol, tranquillizers, sleeping pills, other drugs, smoking and caffeine consumption.
- Chronic tiredness/fatigue: With the right levels of stress, we are able to be productive, creative, enthusiastic and healthy. However, when we have too much stress we become less efficient and productive and start to develop poor interpersonal relationships. Together these factors can lead to mental and physical fatigue, which can lead to more stress and this often ends in “burn-out.”
- Depression: High cortisol levels and serotonin-noradrenalin dysfunction – both common to chronic stress, are implicated in depression. Stress can exacerbate all psychiatric conditions, including depression.
- Digestion: Diarrhea, esophageal spasms, irritable bowel syndrome, poor digestion with bloating, gas and abdominal pain, spastic colon, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease are some of the digestive system problems that are associated with stress.
- Heart or cardiovascular system: Heart attacks, high blood pressure, thickening of the arteries (atherosclerosis or plaque formation), thrombosis (formation of blood clots) and strokes.
- Immune system: In the short term, stress enhances the immune function, but sustained stress suppressed its function. The more stress there is, the fewer antibodies the body will produce. Both kinds of immunity (cell mediated and humoral immunity) are affected by chronic stress – this means that you are more likely to be infected by viruses (including those linked to cancer), bacteria, fungi and parasites. There will also be an increase in sensitivity to environmental toxins. The link between stress and the immune system is seen in disorders ranging from colds to autoimmune conditions (such as multiple sclerosis, systemic lupus erythematosis, rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis and HIV/AIDs as well as cancers).
- Insomnia: Difficulty sleeping is one of the first symptoms of high levels of stress. We need sufficient sleep in order to function properly and to be able to manage the day-to-day stressors of living in a modern world. Lack of sleep also impedes the production of Human Growth Hormone by the pituitary gland. This hormone is directly associated with the aging process.
- Obesity: Cortisol (a hormone) is secreted during long-term stress, which leads to fat accumulating around the abdomen and back. Stress can also lead to behavior patterns whereby we try to be kind or nice to ourselves and eat what we think of as “comfort foods.” These foods are usually high in fats and sugars.
- Sexual and reproductive system: Impotence, premature ejaculation, lowered libido, frigidity, loss of self-confidence, premenstrual tension and infertility. Stress also play a major role in the experience of life transitions – puberty, menopause (male and female) retirement and old age.
- Skeletal system: Backaches, headaches (due to tension and poor posture), muscle tension. Stress hormones interfere with the body’s ability to produce bone – resulting in low bone density and osteoporosis.
- Skin: Approximately 40% of skin disorders as associated with stress. Dermatitis and eczema are often directly related to stress reactions. Problems such as psoriasis, urticarial, acne and cold sores are made worse by or brought on by stress.
- Other problems associated with stress include: Forgetfulness, persistent irritability, apathy, lack of concentration, social withdrawal and increased aggression.
Stress and Aging
Scientists have figured out a link between stress and aging have proven that it speeds up aging – causing people to age faster who live stressful lives. Researchers examined structures inside the cells called telomeres. Telomeres are the caps at the ends of chromosomes – the molecules that carry genes. Even time a cell divides, telomeres get shorter. In the natural aging process, telomeres eventually get so short that cells can no longer divide, and then they die.
The SIRT1 gene can help maintain structure of the telomeres, but it generally inactive or less active in most people – especially as they age. However, the remarkable compound Resveratrol is able to activate the SIRT1, which can reduce oxidative stress. We published an article about Resveratrol health benefits that goes into more detail how it can reduce the aging process along with its other benefits.
The Scientists found out that as more of these cells reach the end of their telomeres and die, the process then produces the effects of aging. Muscles deteriorate, skin wrinkles, eyesight and hearing fail, organs fail, and thinking abilities diminish.
The researches found that chronic stress accelerated this process. They found that people who were under stress have shorter telomeres, and higher levels of oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is a process where harmful free radicals in the body damage DNA, including telomeres.
The interesting thing is that people’s perception of how much stress they are under also affects the telomeres. They found that women with the highest perceived stress had telomeres the same as someone that is 10 years older. The same thing goes for oxidative stress.
When we are “stressed out,” we chronically produce the hormone cortisol. Researchers found that chronically elevated levels of cortisol damage the telomeres and other genes in the body. The hormone cortisol helped our ancestors survive dangerous situations, such as attacks from wild animals, but nowadays we are consistently stressed by other factors, such as work, bills and relationships. We have to stop and figure out if the things that are causing stress in our lives and decide to release the stress in healthful ways.
What are some of the signs we should watch for?
– Grinding of the teeth – Increase in sugar intake
– Nervous laughter – Pacing
– Fidgeting – Chronic procrastination
– Nail biting – Chronic tardiness
– Increase in smoking – Lose interest in appearance
– Increased use of alcohol – Compulsive eating
– Change in social behavior – Slow healing
– Upset stomach – Increased illness
– Shortness of breath – Increased accidental behavior
– Headaches or backaches – Rapid heartbeat
– Aggressive behavior – Constipation
– Diarrhea – Sexual dysfunction or disinterest
– Increase in coffee intake
What can be done to avoid stress?
There are literally dozens of books and hundreds of articles listing the various ways that people successfully avoid stress. Here are just some for your consideration:
- Limit your intake of caffeine.
- Limit your intake of alcohol.
- Limit your intake of refined sugar.
- Avoid tobacco or mood altering medications.
- Avoid situations you know are stressful, if possible.
- Write down things that cause stress and watch out for them.
- Put the problem in perspective. It could be worse. Someone is worse off than you. You will deal with it. You always do.
- Increase the things you like doing.
- Focus on helping someone else with a problem. Yours will seem less important.
- Don’t worry about something over which you have no control.
- Be open to change. Gather all the facts and make a thoughtful decision instead of reacting emotionally.
- Think about solutions to problems and share them with others. Don’t just be a complainer.
- Try to make changes work and make note of difficulties you experience so that solutions can be found more quickly.
Some less obvious stress reduction strategies
Some of the most successful strategies for avoiding or managing stress go far beyond the behavioral ideas just listed. Here are some that have been proven in practice, as well in scientific tests.
- Meditation – Meditation releases hormones, which counteract the negative effects of cortisol. It lowers blood pressure and reduces the release of adrenaline, fat and sugar into the bloodstream. It is most effective when practiced for 10-20 minutes, twice each day. It can be very focused, as in spiritual meditation, or very informal, as in quiet time, with eyes closed and thoughts focused on peaceful images.
- Yoga – As with meditation, yoga promotes regular breathing, muscle stretching and focused thinking. It releases tension and can be practiced at work, at home or in formal yoga sessions.
- Deep Breathing – The same types of benefits as yoga and meditation, usually intended as a temporary pause designed to calm thinking and get more oxygen into the bloodstream. Once specific technique is the 4-7-8 system promoted by Dr. Andrew Weil.
- Exercise – Regular exercise, not marathons, helps to release stress. The mind is engaged in the activity, energy is burned, muscles are extended, oxygen is sent to all parts of the body, positive hormones are released and the digestive process is stimulated.
- Visioning – Some people are able to visualize a stress meter, which they can lower with concentration. This is how eastern religious leaders are able to reduce their heartbeat and withstand various type of physical pain. The results are very similar to meditation. One of the programs we use with our clients is called heart math, where computer screen images can be altered using mind control and biofeedback.
- Emotional Release Techniques – Various techniques for releasing emotions have been introduced over the years. These include dolls that are punched, primal screaming rooms, pillow fights or other similar techniques. It is better not to hold in emotions, but to let them out in acceptable ways.
- Aromatherapy – This very old practice involves breathing in the fragrance of various distilled oils, such as lavender. These fragrances have a calming effect on the body. In fact, there are different fragrances that are known to be effective on various emotional conditions and parts of the body.
- Massage – Many companies actually bring in massage therapists to provide stress-reducing massages to their employees. Massage relaxes muscles, removes toxins from our lymph glands and induces the release of positive hormones, which help promote good health. Circulation is also improved.
- Dietary Factors – Some foods are not helpful in terms of stress control. They include: – Soft drinks – Fried foods – Dairy products – Red meat and porkSpecific Dietary Recommendations
- – Chocolate – Junk foods
- – Processed foods – Eggs
This is found in coffee, tea, chocolate, Coke, etc. It causes the release of adrenaline, thus increasing the level of stress. When taken in moderation, coffee can increase your alertness, increase activity in the muscles, nervous system and heart. Consuming too much caffeine has the same effect as long-term stress. It is suggested that there is a link between caffeine intake and high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels.
Be careful in reducing your coffee or caffeine consumption. Cutting it off abruptly can result in your experiencing withdrawal symptoms. Reduce the consumption slowly over a period of time.
Like caffeine, taken in moderation, alcohol is a very useful drug. It has been
shown to benefit the cardiovascular system. Alcohol is a major cause of stress.
The irony of the situation is that most people take to drinking as a way to combat stress. But, in actuality, they make it worse by consuming alcohol. Alcohol and stress, in combination, are quite deadly.
Alcohol stimulates the secretion of adrenaline resulting in the problems such as nervous tension, irritability and insomnia. Excess alcohol will increase the fat deposits in the heart and decreases the immune function. Alcohol also limits the ability of the liver to remove toxins from the body. During stress, the body produces several toxins, such as hormones. In the absence of its filtering by the liver, these toxins continue to circulate throughout the body, resulting in serious damage.
Sugar has no essential nutrients. It provides a short-term boost of energy through the body, resulting, possibly, in the exhaustion of the adrenal glands. This can result in irritability, poor concentration and depression. High sugar consumption puts a severe load on the pancreas. There is increasing possibility of developing diabetes.
Keep your blood sugar constant. Do not use sugar as a “pick me up.”
Salt increases the blood pressure, depletes adrenal glands and causes emotional instability. Use a salt substitute that has potassium, rather than sodium. Avoid junk foods high in salt, such as bacon, ham, pickles, sausage, etc.
Avoid the consumption of foods rich in saturated fats. Fats cause obesity and put unnecessary stress on the cardiovascular system. High fat is believed to cause breast, colon and prostate cancer.
Eat a Meal High in Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates trigger release of the brain neurotransmitter, serotonin, which soothes you. Good sources of carbohydrates include brown rice, quinoa, millet and sweet potato. Experts suggest that the carbohydrates present in a sweet potato or a cup of brown rice is enough to relieve the anxiety of a stressful day.
Eat Food High in Fiber
Stress results in cramps and constipation. Eat more fiber to keep your digestive system moving. Your meals should provide at least 25 grams of fiber per day. Fruits, vegetables and grains are excellent sources of fiber. For breakfast, eat whole fruits instead of just juice, and whole-train cereals and fiber-fortified muffins.
Eat More Vegetables
Your brain’s production of Serotonin is sensitive to your diet. Eating more vegetables can increase your brain’s Serotonin production. This increase is due to improved absorption of the amino acid L-Tryptophan. (Vegetables contain the natural, safe form of L Tryptophan.) Meats contain natural L-Tryptophan also, but when you eat meat, the L-Tryptophan has to compete with so many other amino acids for absorption, that the L-Tryptophan loses out. The net result is that you get better absorption of L-Tryptophan when you eat vegetables.
Foods to Eat
- Whole grains promote the production of the brain neurotransmitter, Serotonin, which increases your sense of well-being.
- Green, yellow and orange vegetables are all rich in minerals, vitamins and phytochemicals, which boost immune response and protect against disease.
Foods to Avoid
- Coffee and other caffeinated beverages: If you are currently addicted to coffee, drink black tea; it has less than a third of the caffeine of coffee, and none of the harmful oils.
- Fried foods and foods rich in fat are very immune depressing, especially when stress is doing that, as well.
- Reduce animal foods. High-protein foods elevate brain levels of dopamine and norepinephrine, both of which are associated with higher levels of anxiety and stress.
There are also foods that are known to help reduce stress. They include:
- Blended drinks with pre-digested protein.
- Essential fatty acids from fish (salmon).
- Fruits and vegetables.
- Whole grain cereals and breads.
- Nuts and seeds.
- Fruits and salads.
- Supplements – The following vitamins and minerals are also known to help avoid and relieve stress.
- Vitamin C – 500 mg – 8,000 mg depending on various factors.
- B vitamins – The full range, but especially inositol.
- Calcium – 1,500 mg/day
- Magnesium – 1,000 mg/day
- Zinc – 30-50 mg/day
- Amino acids
- Beta carotene – as directed on the label
- Potassium & selenium – as directed on label
- Vitamin E – 400 iu./day
- Hormones – as per saliva and blood tests
- Omega 3 – 1000-2000 mg/day
- CoQ 10 – 100 mg/day
- Herbs – Some herbs also help with stress.- Valerian – Melatonin
- – Ashwagandha – Chamomile
- – Kava-kava (some cautions) – Passionflower
– Skull cap – Catnip
– Billbery – St. John’s wort
- Other Stress Reducers
– Music – Hobbies
– Pets – Spirituality
– Sex – Volunteering
– Humor – Time off
– Time Management – Muscle stretching/relaxation
– Biofeedback – Hypnosis
Making Your Personal Stress Management Plan
Three sources of stress for you:
Foods you will stop or reduce
Foods you will add or increase
Three stress indicators you should watch for:
Three food or supplement changes you can make:
Three stress reduction techniques you are willing to try:
Partially modeled on a test developed by Robert S. Eliot, M.D.
Score as follows: 5 = All the time 4 = Often 3 = Sometimes 2 = Rarely 1 = Never
- My stress is caused by forces beyond my control. __________
- When change is required, I become anxious. __________
- I am dissatisfied with my personal relationships. __________
- I am tired due to demands at work and at home.__________
- I don’t seem to have enough time to finish things. __________
- I have financial pressures that are difficult to deal with. __________
- I dislike my work and can’t risk trying to change it. __________
- I feel disappointment about my achievements. __________
- I don’t take advice or criticism very well. __________
- I feel that many people are dependent on me. __________
- I find it hard to ask for help. __________
- I use food, smoking or alcohol to help me cope. __________
- I do not handle anger very well. __________
- I feel there are few people I can trust and confide in. __________
- I feel that things will not work out for me. __________
15-29 Excellent You have things under control and are happy.
30-44 Good You are emotionally stable and can improve in some areas.
45-69 Concern You have more stress than you can handle and could use some help
making a plan to avoid stress in some areas.
60-75 Danger You have too many stressful situations and need professional
assistance to help reverse and/or manage your problems.
- Describe some event in your life – or on the job – that you become upset about.
2. Write how you feel now.
3. Write words and phrases that represent the self-talk that accompanies this upsetting situation.
4. Write how you want to feel.
5. Write some alternative words and phrases that may help you feel the way you want to feel.
Review your strategy with a partner.
|Can You Cope?
Take this test designed by Ilona Jerabek, Ph.D., a Montreal-based psychologist and researcher, to get an idea of just how well you handle crises. (For a full version of the test, check Jerabek’s website: www.queendom.com/coping.html) Read each statement carefully and indicate the degree to which it applies to you.
|Almost Never||Rarely||Sometimes||Quite Often||Most of the Time|
|1. I get easily discouraged.|
|2. When I am stressed, my mind goes blank.|
|3. When a situation requires a change of plan, I feel confused or
|4. When I fail, I am devastated for a long time.|
|5. When a situation changes, I adjust my plans.|
|6. I know where to find the information I need.|
|7. I trust my judgment.|
|8. I accept my mistakes as learning opportunities.|
|9. When something I wanted doesn’t work out, I rapidly get
back on my feet.
|10. I am able to apply what I have learned to new situations.|
Determine Your Score:
- For the first four questions: Give 10 points for each “Almost Never” , 8 points for each “Rarely”, 6 points for each “Sometimes”, 4 points for each “Quite Often”, and 2 points for each “Most of the Time.”
- For the last six questions: Give 2 points for each “Almost Never”, 4 points for each “Rarely”, 6 points for each “Sometimes”, 8 points for each “Quite Often”, and 10 points for each “Most of the Time.”
What Your Score Means:
80-100: You appear to have excellent coping skills. Most of the time you deal efficiently with stress. You don’t crack under pressure, and you’re resourceful in most precarious situations. You are not a victim of your environment and feel pretty much in control.
51-80: You appear to have average coping skills. You’re not completely defenseless when facing stress. You don’t crack under pressure, but you may still become anxious, depressed, or very nervous when things become difficult. To supplement your coping skills, you may want to adopt a stress strategy like those on these pages.
0-50: Your coping skills appear to be underdeveloped. When dealing with stress, you are basically defenseless. People with a profile similar to yours tend to crack under pressure and become anxious and depressed. Without efficient coping skills, you may feel overwhelmed, as if you lack control of your life. It’s probably a good idea for you to follow one of the stress strategies profiled here.