The physical, emotional and mental response to something you find stressful. The stressor can be as major as the death of someone you love or as trivial
as missing the bus. Stress has an impact on the whole body, causing minute alterations in body chemistry, temperature, pH and electrical charge. These
tiny changes eventually converge into obvious physical and mental symptoms such as recurrent colds, bowel problems, poor memory and even serious illness
including cancer. We tend to separate mind and body, but the distinction becomes meaningless when you contemplate that the body and brain share the
same blood, nutrients and oxygen. When the body and mind become so involved in dealing with stress, it is difficult to find happiness.
The main players in the body during stress are the stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, and the nervous system, in particular the autonomic nervous
system. The autonomic nervous system is beyond your conscious control, comprising of the sympathetic (fight and flight) and the parasympathetic (relax
and digest). In response to stress, the sympathetic nerves send the message to the adrenal glands to release adrenaline.
- Anxious thoughts.
- Feelings of apprehension.
- Avoidance of tasks.
- Awareness of heartbeat.
- Choking feeling.
- Difficulty in completing tasks.
- Difficulty in swallowing.
- Lack of motivation.
- Loss of interest in sex or increased, inappropriate interest in sex.
- Poor concentration.
- Poor memory.
- Getting impatient easily.
- Sleep problems.
- Strained facial muscles, eg frowning, clenched jaw.
- Tension headaches.
- Waking feeling tired.
- Clenching fists.
- Grinding teeth.
- Stiff or tense muscles.
- Sore back or neck.
- Nervous tic.
- Finishing other people’s sentences for them.
- Feeling guilty if you relax.
- Trying to fit too much into a day.
- Assuming more and more responsibilities.
- Finding it difficult to say no to more work.
- Perspiring easily, particularly on the palms and underarms.
- Becoming preoccupied with negative thoughts.
- Finding it difficult to be alone.
- Tending to be cynical.
- Tending to be prone to outbursts of anger.
- Finding yourself intolerant of people.
- Increasing consumption of alcohol, recreational drugs or smoking.
- Under- or over-eating.
- Flatulence, burping, abdominal bloating, reflux, stomach ache.
- Constipation or diarrhoea.
- Frequent urination.
- Urgency to urinate.
- More than 3 colds in a year.
What is this thing called Stress
‘I’m stressed’ is a common refrain, and one that most of us can identify with. Stress as a common term really only came into being in the 1940s and hit
its stride by the 1970s. Here in the 21st century, stress is still going strong. Although stress wasn’t identified until around World War II, it did
exist as a concept. Nervous breakdowns, men coming back from war shell-shocked, and homes for the bewildered give an inkling that stress existed, named
In 1914 Harvard Professor of Physiology, W B Cannon, coined the term fight-or-flight syndrome. He observed physical changes in animals endangered by predators,
such as increased heart rate and decreased digestion. These, and a whole range of other physical changes, also occur when a human perceives a threat.
The fight-or-flight theory is helpful in understanding what happens to your body when you are stressed. A threat doesn’t have to be physical – it can
be a looming deadline or an argument with your spouse. However, the physical responses to stress evolved long ago to meet threats of a different kind,
such as being trodden on by a mammoth or clubbed by a Neanderthal with a grudge. Our body responds just the same to a mammoth or a mammoth deadline.
The 3 phases of stress
In the 1930s, Dr Hans Selye, known as ‘the father of stress’ (rather an unfortunate title), went further than Cannon and identified 3 stages in the body’s
response to stress.
Stage 1: Alarm phase – The stress switch has been turned on; the trigger has been pulled. This is the fight or flight response – an immediate reaction
to a threat, perceived or real. There is an instantaneous mobilising of nerves and hormones. The body is abuzz with adrenaline. You are ready to rock
and roll, fight or flee. Activation of the stress system heightens mental and physical arousal, accelerates reflexes, improves attention, decreases
appetite, increases tolerance of pain. In small doses, adrenaline feels fabulous and people can get addicted to these feelings. In fact, drugs such
as cocaine, and to a smaller extent nicotine and caffeine, activate adrenaline.
Stage 2: Resistance phase – If the alarm bells continue to ring, the body tries to adapt. You know how annoying a car alarm can be? The fist time you hear
it you look out the window, ready to apprehend a car thief. The fifth time the alarm goes off, you are looking for the ponce who owns the car. The
resistance stage of stress is when you start to see some of the conditions associated with stress, including IBS, insomnia and headaches.
Stage 3: Exhaustion phase – You can only be on high alert for so long. The adrenal glands eventually become too pooped to pip. By this stage you will be
experiencing a worsening of the symptoms that began in Stage 2, and are probably feeling very tired, depressed and possibly showing early signs of
heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
Adrenaline and cortisol – the drama queen and Cinderella
The adrenal glands deal with stress by pumping out another hormone in addition to adrenaline: cortisol. Adrenaline is the drama queen stress hormone for
‘right now’ events (the fight-or-flight response), whereas cortisol is the resentful Cinderella who mops up the effects of adrenaline and deals with
longer-term stress. If your body has suffered stress for a long period, it is a drain on your adrenal glands. Naturopaths call this adrenal exhaustion.
If you are adrenally exhausted, you have few, if any, reserves left. Pushed beyond these reserves, you run the risk of falling seriously ill.
There are usually 3 indicators that you may be adrenally exhausted. Firstly, you have very low energy levels. Secondly, your pupils are unusually large.
(When adrenaline is switched on, the pupils widen. Normally, after the adrenaline surge has gone, the pupils go back to their normal size, a third
of the iris, but in the adrenally exhausted individual they stay dilated. This may be more apparent under the iridology torch, when the pupils fluctuate
in and out in response to the light of the torch. Normally, the pupils will slightly constrict.) Thirdly, you find you are more tired after exercise.
(Unless it’s a marathon, exercise generally gives you energy, so if you are drained the afternoon or next day after a swim or fast walk, adrenal exhaustion
Adrenal exhaustion isn’t the only effect of repeated exposure to stress. Every time you are exposed to stress it’s as if a trigger has been pulled, causing
your brain and adrenals to release hormones. Unfortunately, it takes less and less pressure on the trigger to create the stress cascade. The brain
and adrenals become trigger-happy and hypersensitive. You may have noticed that if you’ve been under a lot of stress, you become stressed over the
littlest things. You lose your cool over trivial stuff that has never bothered you before. Misplacing your keys becomes high drama instead of a small
setback. You become startled and distressed by everyday noises such as barking dogs and slammed doors.
- Pupil (dilates) – To enable you to see better running in twilight through deep jungle or stalking your prey.
- Skin (sweating increases, including palms and soles of the feet) – Sweating improves heat loss, all the better for keeping cool when fighting or running.
Sweaty palms allow you to keep hold of your club when fighting, or swing from lianas when fleeing.
- Lungs (airways widen) – Adrenaline is given as emergency medicine for asthmatics to widen airways and for anaphylactic allergic reactions (as in an
epi-pen). More air into the lungs makes it easier to breathe when running away from T. rex or after your prehistoric adversary.
- Penis (engorges) – It’s a guy thing. Spontaneous erection and ejaculation may (disconcertingly) occur. Perhaps it’s to sire your progeny before you
depart this mortal coil in combat.
- Blood flow – Blood travels to the big muscle groups like the legs, arms and heart that need to work hard, retreating from the less important areas
such the digestive tract and periphery (eg face and hands), leaving you looking pale and fingers cold to touch.
- Blood and blood vessels – Blood vessels constrict when bracing for an injury. Substances that increase clotting increase in the bloodstream, again
just in case a tusk tears you apart. The downside in modern times is that these are also markers for a heart attack or stroke. Blood fats also
increase, prehistorically to give you more energy to run further, but now just adding to the picture of stroke and diabetes.
- Mind – Mental activity increases. You’d best have your wits about you in a fight to save your life. Anxiety levels go through the roof, but better
to be scared and on guard rather than to be found lounging around the open fire, sucking on some fermented fruit.
Although cortisol is the less dramatic of the stress hormones, it’s the dark horse in the race as in the long term, excess cortisol poses a greater risk
to your health than the occasional excess of adrenaline. That is not to say that cortisol doesn’t have its good points. It’s more a question of quantity
and the amount of time that high levels of cortisol are circulating in the body, rather than cortisol being ‘bad’ per se. Cortisol has important anti-inflammatory
properties. You may have heard of the drug cortisone – a man-made copy of the body’s own cortisol – which is used medically to calm down the inflammation
of severe asthma, arthritis and colitis. Cortisol’s other role is to increase blood-sugar levels. Back in the jungle, this was good news, allowing
a constant stream of fuel to the brain and more energy for muscles. However, high-sugar levels on a day-to-day level spells disaster.
Some of the types of stress that increase cortisol release include:
- Trauma to the body of almost any type, including bruises, cuts and a fall.
- Intense heat or cold.
- Surge of adrenaline.
- Lack of sleep.
- Emotional stress.
- Mental stress.
Following are some of the negative effects of higher than normal levels of cortisol.
Acute stress of no more than 3–5 days’ duration can increase immunity. In the middle of a crisis, you rarely get sick, but the minute the alarm bells have
finished ringing, you are wide open to infection.
Long-term stress of more than 5 days or so and the associated higher cortisol output can decrease the number of immune cells in your blood, shrink the
thymus gland and lymph tissue where immune cells mature.
Autoimmune conditions, such as ulcerative colitis, rheumatoid arthritis and MS are conditions where the body’s immune system attacks certain cells in the
body. A period of stress often precedes the onset and flare-up of an autoimmune disease.
High levels of cortisol interfere with memory. If stress exists for less than 6 months, the effect will not be permanent. However, repeated and longer-term
stress can shrink the part of the brain where you store memories. A study reported in the International Journal of Neuroscience found that high-stress
levels could be linked with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. A low-stress life is looking more and more attractive.
Cortisol levels are elevated in people with depression. And vice versa, long-term stress can cause depression. The connection between stress and depression
works like this. Stress causes a shift in brain biochemistry. The stress hormone cortisol decreases the availability of serotonin (the happy neurotransmitter).
Low serotonin levels are linked to depression.
Muscle loss and weight gain
Cortisol reduces protein synthesis and increases protein breakdown. High cortisol translates to loss of muscle tissue. Under lots of stress our muscles
get weak and lose tone. Due to its interaction with insulin, an excess of cortisol can lead to increased fat deposition. Life ain’t fair.
High cholesterol and low libido
Cholesterol is converted into cortisol in the adrenal glands. Cholesterol is also the ‘parent’ molecule for other important molecules in the body, including
testosterone, vitamin D and the diuretic hormone. If you are exposed to a lot of stress, your adrenal glands are under pressure to produce loads of
cortisol. This will cause high circulating levels of cholesterol to show up on your blood tests. The cholesterol is directed at making cortisol at
the expense of the other molecules. With excess stress, testosterone levels decrease in both men and women, causing a decline in libido. Fluid retention
is also a common symptom found in the chronically stressed and adds to the perception of weight gain.
Cortisol increases circulating cholesterol and blood fats, both risk factors for heart disease. Combined with adrenaline’s role of constricting blood vessels
and increasing blood clotting, it’s no wonder stress is so deadly.
What to do
- With adrenaline and cortisol both having an effect on blood-sugar levels and therefore influencing your mood, it’s important you keep to a diet that
minimises rising and falling levels. Eat regular meals that include some protein such as eggs, fish, chicken, meat, legumes, nuts and seeds.
- Avoid caffeine. The last thing you need when you are stressed is any stimulant. Caffeine increase adrenaline. Drink a maximum of 2 cups of tea and
1 cup of coffee, and make that no diet colas.
- Avoid sugar. The stress hormones are already doing their darnedest to disrupt your blood-sugar equilibrium, so don’t make things worse. Eating protein
with each meal will reduce your craving for sweet things.
- Reduce alcohol. Alcohol is a nervous-system depressant. If you enjoy a glass or 2 a day and it calms you down, go for it, but if you notice you are
more stressed, anxious or depressed the next day, or it interrupts your sleep, then best to cut alcohol out altogether.
- When you are stressed it is important that you eat well. Unfortunately, when you are stressed it is more likely you don’t have the time or inclination
to cook. On the weekend, or when you have some spare time, cook double or more of a nourishing casserole or wholesome soup and freeze portions
to use when you can’t be bothered cooking.
- Keep hydrated. Drink at least 2 litres of fluid daily. Why not swap to some calming herbal teas such as licorice, chamomile, lemon balm and/or ginger?
- Juices, particularly vegetable juices, are a good way to increase your vitamin and mineral content when your diet might be a bit dodgy. Base your juice
on carrots and add an assortment of beetroot, ginger, celery, parsley and/or spinach. Drink your juice with a meal to ensure blood-sugar levels
- Stress begins with the nervous system and the B complex of vitamins can all be beneficial for a stressed nervous system. Take 1 with breakfast and
another with lunch.
- Herbs to help calm an irritated nervous system include St. John’s wort, kava, valerian, oats, passionflower, vervain, lemon balm, zizyphus, magnolia
- If your shoulders are bunched up around your ears and your muscles tighten up when you are stressed, then magnesium is your friend. Take at night.
- For longer-term stress, and to avoid the health concerns that come with it, take several of the adaptogen herbs (see page 00) such as Siberian ginseng,
licorice, Korean ginseng, schisandra, astragalus, gotu kola, tulsi, rhodiola, withania and rehmannia.
- Bach flowers can be very helpful in stressful times. The classic is Rescue Remedy. Others that might appeal include aspen for generalised anxiety,
mimulus for known fear, white chestnut for thoughts that go round and round in the mind like a mouse on a wheel, sweet chestnut for appalling mental
despair (the dark night of the soul stuff) and Star of Bethlehem for shock, and the after-effects of shock.
- Stress is the trigger behind many conditions from headaches to eczema. See each condition for more specific remedies.
- When stressed, your breathing changes, becoming faster and more shallow. By focussing on breathing from your belly, you will feel calmer. Belly breathing
switches on the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), the part of the autonomic nervous system you want to dominate in preference to the sympathetic
nervous system. Don’t relegate belly breathing to practice at a particular time of day; make it your default breathing pattern. The more you belly
breathe, the better you will feel – and the more natural it will become to breathe this way. Buteyko breathing also switches on the PNS.
- Meditation is a winner when it comes to reducing the harmful effects of stress, lowering both adrenaline and cortisol levels. It doesn’t matter which
type of meditation you choose, just so long as you are able to reduce the ‘monkey mind’ thoughts that will try and distract you. CDs and books
are available, although it is often best to learn meditation in a group, on a course or meditation retreat. Countless studies have been done on
the benefits of meditation for all sorts of conditions from heart disease, to cancer, to headaches.
- Last thing at night, take a long hot bath, with a handful of Epsom salts to relieve muscle spasm and a few drops of lavender oil to ease your mind.
- Exercise helps reduce cortisol levels. It also uses up any spare adrenaline making exercise an excellent stress management tool. Don’t throw it away
when the going gets tough, even though you might have little spare time in the day, make some time for a 20-minute walk, swim or some yoga stretches.
- How you handle stress is often how your parents handled stress. We learnt before we could speak or properly understand family dynamics. If becoming
angry or depressed was how members of your family handled stress, odds on that will be your default tendency. Understanding this is important,
and then you can go on to changing your reactions so they are more helpful to the situation and less detrimental to your health. A good counsellor
can help with this.
- Counselling is useful during times of stress. Not only is it a supportive pair of ears, and a time devoted to you for you to unload, good counselling
allows you to develop skills in order to cope with stressful situations, now and in the future. With counselling, it is important you find the
right person for you, just because they have impressive qualifications doesn’t mean they are good for you.
- Don’t let stress destroy your happiness or your health.
Use this relaxing, calming, stress-relieving blend as needed. For a full body massage, dilute in 5 ml of arnica-infused oil with 25 ml of warm coconut
oil. Or, mix 10 drops with 125 g of Epsom salts and relax back in a warm bath. Use 6–8 drops in a room vaporiser or blend with jojoba oil and use as
a personal perfume. Mix with an essential oil solubiliser and use as a personal spritzer.
- 3 drops of lavender oil – carminative, hypotensive, nervine, sedative, antidepressant
- 3 drops of frankincense oil – sedative and calming
- 5 drops of bergamot oil – calming, uplifting, antidepressant, balancing and stress relieving
- 4 drops of clary sage – antidepressant, hypotensive, nervine, stomachic and sedative
At a glance
- Under stress, your blood-sugar levels will be all over the shop. Eat regular meals every 2–3 hours that contain a little protein (eggs, fish, chicken,
meat, legumes, nuts and seeds).
- Avoid caffeine. Caffeine releases adrenaline, something you already have in excess. – Avoid sugar. Sugary foods will only make things worse, I
- When you are stressed, it’s best to be well nourished. Freeze extra portions of nutritious casseroled and soups for when you don’t feel up to making
meals from scratch.
- Vegetable juices can add to your nutritional repertoire.
- Take a strong B complex morning and lunch. B vitamins are good for your nervous system.
- Herbs for a stressed nervous system include St. John’s wort, kava, valerian, oats, passionflower, vervain, lemon balm, zizyphus, magnolia and chamomile.
- Herbs for the longer haul include Siberian ginseng, licorice, Korean ginseng, schisandra, astragalus, gotu kola, tulsi, rhodiola, withania and
- Magnesium is relaxing for muscle spasms, a common symptom of stress.
- Learn to belly breathe. Stress makes breathing faster and more shallow. Belly breathing (and Buteyko breathing)
reverses this pattern and switches on the parasympathetic nervous system.
- Now is the time to bring out and dust your meditation stool or enrol in a meditation class. Meditation is the most powerful stress-relieving tool
there is. Ohm.
- Exercise not only takes your mind off your problems, it reduces stress hormones. Hop and jump to it.
- Finding a good counsellor is a good investment of your time and dollars. Not only will they help you get through this time, but can also equip
you with tools to use when stress next crosses your path.