Stress Awareness Month – What Is Stress & Anxiety?
In this article I will provide an overview of what stress and anxiety is, how it can manifest into deeper concerns and how it can affect us mentally and physically.
I will provide simple quick tips to help you manage stress and anxiety.
What Is Stress?
When we are exposed to stresses in our lives our adrenal glands; the two small glands located on top of the kidneys, release hormones such as adrenaline, cortisol, testosterone and androgens which stimulates the stress system ‘the sympathetic nervous system’(SNS).
Moderate levels of stress are a necessary part of life and needed for one to achieve their personal ambitions and goals.
But too much prolonged stress can lead to chronic stress. This can cause strain on the biological neurons, which affect the balance and function of the individual.
When the stress system ‘sympathetic nervous system’, becomes highly aroused and alert for a prolong period it will inevitably lead to chronic stress.
An amplified sympathetic nervous system is the precursor to a toxic body, including the brain, the immune, metabolism and circulatory functions, which become compromised and can lead to ill health.
Chronic stress can de-rail the individual out of the window of tolerance, where substance abuse such as alcohol or drugs or other compulsive behaviour can become a solace of escape.
Negative emotions and patterns make one feel unhinged, which can lead to negative actions in relation to oneself and to others in the form of anger, frustration, over reacting, short temper, or other impulse behaviours. One might experience low self-esteem, dark mood and depression.
What Causes Stress?
Stress can range from acute, time limited stress situations, like a work presentation, to brief stress such as taking an exam, to focal event stress such as the loss of a loved one. Chronic stress is prolonged stress which does not subside or appear to have any end, distant stress can be a historical post traumatic event such as being abused as a child, or a prisoner of war, to name but a few.
Typical causes of stress:
Feeling under pressure
Overwhelmed by responsibilities
Lack of control over a situation
Life change event
Violated dignity as a human being; rape, abuse, discrimination
How Does Stress Effect The Brain?
The brain is the most incredibly complex organ of the body with a network of systems. The right side of the brain leans towards our creative self, whilst the left side leans towards our logical self. It is the control centre of the body and what makes us who we really are. With the advanced medical procedures available today, we can replace many other organs of the body and we would still be us, with the exception of our brain. The brain gives us our soul.
Stress is a natural biological process that is needed for our brain to develop, learn and survive. Without any stress we are unable to form the neural connections to promote vital growth.
But too much stress can develop into chronic stress which can cause strain on the biological neurons, which affect the development and function of the brain.
Stress highly arouses the nervous system. This creates an active amygdala, the lower brain or survival brain, the centre of fear. It de-regulates the higher brain, our conscious brain.
Our brain, our mind, creates our thoughts, which in turn prompt our actions.
Relaxing the mind promotes a calmer, balanced version of the self.
How Does Stress Effect The Nervous System?
The sympathetic nervous system is part of the autonomic nervous system. It consists of an extensive network of neurons that regulate the body’s involuntary processes. Stress alerts the sympathetic nervous system to fight, flight or freeze. Stress hormones are released into the body, the heart rate is increased, the body’s tissues tighten, muscles tense and the breath become rapid and shallow.
The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) promotes the opposite response. The parasympathetic nervous system is a network of nerves that relaxes the body after periods of stress. When the PNS is activated, when you feel safe and relaxed, it slows down the heart rate and regulates breathing, lowers blood pressure and promotes digestion.
Chronic stress can be the gateway to anxiety, feelings of fear, dread, and general unease that darkens each day of your life.
Eliminating stress from your life altogether is pretty impossible and actually impractical since, as mentioned before, we do need some stress to help motivate us to achieve our goals.
Stress can be related other issues, including anxiety related conditions and disorders such as Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Panic Attacks, Avoidance Behaviours, OCD and Post Traumatic Stress.
What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a feeling of fear, dread and unease. It might cause you to sweat, feel restless and tense, experience nausea, and have a rapid heat beat or heart palpitations. These can be normal reactions to stress and anxiety.
What Are The Symptoms Of Stress & Anxiety?
- Rapid heart rate or heart palpitations
- Shallow breathing
- Flutters in the tummy
- Digestive complaints
- Tight chest
- Tense neck & shoulders
- Generally feeling tense
- Erratic decision making
- Sleep issues
- Concentration difficulties
- Inflammatory skin complaints, rashes, eczema, acne
How To Relieve Stress
Adopt healthy supportive lifestyle changes to combat symptoms of stress and anxiety.
Simple ways to reduce stress.
Exercise To Reduce Stress
Exercise such as swimming and yoga increases levels of serotonin and dopamine in the brain, the ‘Happy Hormones’, which in turn decreases the body’s elevated hormonal and immune responses to stress, reducing the risk of stress related symptoms as well as inducing a relaxed state.
During exercise your heart rate increases, boosting circulation and delivering oxygen and nutrients to nourish cells throughout the body and mind. The improved blood flow increases the lymph flow, which eliminates toxins from the body and the mind.
Select a type of feel-good exercise or simple movement you enjoy. This will encourage you to stay with it and inevitably you will feel the benefits.
Incorporate a diverse regime to ensure you are working on all levels, physically, emotionally and spiritually. If you are a high impact exercise junky, include low impact exercise such as relaxing yoga to counterbalance the stress hormones such as cortisol.
How To Breath To Reduce Stress?
When the body is undergoing a stress attack, the fight or flight response is activated. The ‘sympathetic nervous system’ is stimulated and physiological changes occur to the breath, which becomes short, shallow and rapid. To come out of this state and into the ‘parasympathetic nervous system’ a relaxed, safe state, a simple relaxing breathing technique is a quick, affective, and instant tool.
When you are faced with moments of stress and anxiety during your day, bring your attention to your breath, breath slowly and rhythmically through your nose, or why not try ‘Box Breathing’ to eliminate the stress related symptoms.
Box Breathing For Stress
Breath through the nose:
Inhale slowly, deeply and quietly as you count to yourself ‘1,2,3,4’
Then hold the breath as you count to yourself ‘1,2,3,4’
Exhale slowly, gently and quietly as you count to yourself ‘1,2,3,4’
Then hold the breath as you count to yourself ‘1,2,3,4’
Focusing on the breath will enhance relaxation, and are therefore calming.
Repeat several times.
What Activities Can Help Relieve Stress
To take time to relax is just as important as exercise, especially during very demanding and busy times of life. Relaxation greatly improves your wellbeing by regulating your digestion as well as the parasympathetic nervous system, and reducing the activity of stress hormones.
What really makes YOU feel relaxed?
A walk in a park, connecting to nature, a cycle ride, horse riding. Just simply being at home doing house chores, cooking, organising your space, gardening, curled up with a cuppa reading a book, listening to music, watching a movie, being creative, taking a quick nap, or connecting with friends and family.
Yoga, mindfulness, relaxing breathwork and meditation practices connect body and mind to promote a calm, relaxed state where healing can be achieved.
Soak away stress in a hot bubble bath, or indulge in an infusion of essential oils such as lavender, chamomile, neroli, melissa to promote relaxation & calm.
A professional systemic treatment such as a relaxing facial, massage, acupuncture or reiki therapy provide a holistic approach to managing stress, promoting equanimity for you.
Practice gratitude. Smile more. Be kind to yourself.
How To Reduce Stress With Sleep
Stress affects sleep quantity and quality. Lack of sleep leaves you feeling exhausted the next morning, which can exasperate even the smallest of daily stresses.
Adopt simple steps before bed to improve sleep.
Listen to relaxing music or sleep aid meditation before going to bed. Restorative or Yin Yoga are great relaxing techniques and excellent sleep enhancers, as is a soothing breath practice.
Apply a few drops of a soothing essential oil such as lavender or neroli to the inside of your wrists before going to bed, inhale the comforting aroma slowly and gently.
Drink a calming herbal tea such as chamomile, valerian or a hot milky drink.
Avoid eating too late as this could disrupt digestion, thus sleep.
Take time out from your digital devices, each notification ping stimulates the release of cortisol, thus the stress response. Avoid engaging with your digital devices several hours prior to sleeping. Keep digital devices out of the bedroom when you go to bed.
It might be useful to take a sleep enhancing supplement such as Viridian’s Magnesium, Magnesium & Saffron or Organic Valerian Root, Tryptophan, 5HTP a few hours before going to bed.
Aim for 8 hours sleep each night.
Can Diet Effect Stress?
Eating the wrong foods can contribute to stress. Follow a healthy, balanced diet to support overall health and reduce stress related symptoms.
Does sugar cause stress?
Avoid sugar, eating sugar can cause a stress response in your body as the blood sugar rises and rapidly falls. These blood sugar fluctuations can contribute to stress, anxiety, sleep and other related symptoms.
The western world is living in a sugar epidemic. Some studies suggest that excess sugar is as addictive as street drugs like cocaine.
Eating sugar fuels every cell in the brain, which releases opioids and dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is a key part of the reward-circuit, thus keeping you wanting more. Every time you eat sugar you are simply reinforcing that reward, thus making it harder to break the cycle. The sugar peaks and lows contribute to stress responses and mood fluctuations.
A Low-Gl (low sugar) diet will support good cognitive health, as well as a feeling of overall improved health and wellbeing. Low-GI whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, pulses, oats and healthy fats are ‘Nutrient-rich’. These Low-GI food types are slow-releasing carbohydrates. which release their energy into the blood stream gradually to provide you with a steady supply of energy.
Eat 30 portions of diverse plant foods each week. Snack on a selection of nuts and seeds, they provide a good source of plant protein, healthy fats, fibres, vitamins and minerals like copper, zinc, vitamin A, C and E, which contribute to mood wellbeing.
Include oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, to ensure you receive the essential combination of nutrients required for normal neuro cell development and healthy brain. Fish oil is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids. Studies show they can promote better mood. Supplements are an alternative option, especially for vegans.
Keep hydrated. Every cell in our body and brain needs water to function well. Drink water, add fresh slices citrus fruit, cucumber, or natural botanical cordial. Chamomile and valerian herbal tea induce calm and relaxation.
What Supplements Help To Reduce Stress?
Several supplements are linked with supporting the reduction of stress, as well as help increase your body’s resistance to life’s stresses. These including, Ashwagandha, L-theanine, B-complex Vitamins, Vitamin D3, Magnesium and Saffron.
Personal experiences via Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) and Psychotherapy
500 hour Yoga Teacher training journey
National Library Of Medicine (NIH)
Public Med Central
‘How To Stop Worrying and Find Unlimited Happiness’ – By Alexender W Allen
‘Internal Family systems Therapy’ – By Richard C Schwartz
‘The Body Keeps The Score’ – By Bressel A Van Der Kolk
‘The Breath’ – By James Nestor
Author/ Creator / Director: Angela Taffinder the founder of Emporium Treatment Clinic. A practising Aesthetician for 35+ years, holistic and wellbeing advocate and yoga instructor.
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