We all have a different response to stressful situations. Some people may feel that stress impacts their sleep and energy, and for others they may experience gut disturbances. The level and extent of stress a person may feel can vary greatly.
What is happening in the body when we are stressed to make us feel and act the way that we do? Understanding this and the influence that it can have on our health can make it easier for us acknowledge those feelings, and utilise simple tools to help reduce it.
What is stress?
Stress is a response to experiencing emotional, physical, or psychological strain as a result of an adverse situation. There are two categories of stress: acute and chronic. Acute stress is common and necessary, it can enable us to get through difficult situations, such as an important meeting at work. On the other hand, chronic stress involves reoccurring stressors in your life over a period of time (usually 3+ months), which it is having a negative impact on your everyday wellbeing.
When we experience stress the body releases several hormones, the most prevalent being cortisol (AKA our stress hormone) produced by the adrenal glands. Cortisol has many important roles including maintaining blood pressure and the body’s stress response. In response to stress, the body’s sympathetic nervous system is activated by the sudden release of hormones. This is known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. This reaction prepares us to stay and deal with a threat, or run away to safety. As a result of this response, several changes occur in the body.
How can stress negatively impact our health?
Over time, the continued release of cortisol and constant state of bring in the ‘fight or flight’ response can have a negative impact on our health. One of the most common impacts that people may experience when they are in this heightened alertness is gut disturbances. When the fight or flight mode is activated, digestion is shut down, and blood flow is diverted away from the gut, so that the body can use all its energy to fight the perceived threat. This can cause an array of physical symptoms such as nausea and diarrhoea, as well as physiological symptoms such as absorbing nutrients from the food we eat.
A constant production of cortisol can also deplete our body of essential nutrients such as zinc and magnesium, as these minerals are involved in the synthesis of cortisol. The body will begin to draw these nutrients from other areas of the body such as the hair, skin, or bones if we don’t consume or absorb adequate amounts. This is why when we are highly stressed we may notice weaker nails, thinning hair and skin flare ups.
Listed below are some other common effects that stress can have on the body:
- Gut disturbances and dysbiosis
- Storage of fat (particularly around the waist)
- Skin conditions such as acne and eczema
- Increased heart rate
- Disturbed sleep
- Feeling irritable or withdrawn
- Mood swings
- Struggling with social interaction
- Anxious thoughts or a racing mind
- Loss of concentration or focus
The link between stress and appetite
Most people will notice a change in their appetite when stressed, either by turning to food or withdrawing from it completely. For both of these categories, stress can lead us to make poor food choices.
Those who turn to food for comfort often want to consume highly palatable foods higher in sugar or fat, such as chocolate and ice cream. This is because these foods reduce cortisol secretion and therefore when we eat these foods, we feel more calm. Our brain then wants us to continue eating these foods to feel that sense of relaxation again, and the cycle continues.
Those who withdraw from food find it difficult to recognise feelings of hunger. The body uses glucose (sugar) stores for immediate energy, tricking the brain into believing it doesn’t require additional food. The body will focus on providing energy to systems that are required for survival, and will switch off other areas such as digestion and reproduction.
Stress management tips
There are many stress management tools that can assist with reducing stress, and most of them are very simple and easy to incorporate into our everyday lives. Here are 6 that we recommend to try:
- A good sleep routine: Reducing screen time in the hours before you sleep, going to bed at around the same time each night, and writing a list of all the thoughts in your mind can set up a good routine before bed
- Get out in nature or spend time with animals: Surrounding yourself with nature and animals have been proven to reduce stress levels
- Find a hobby: Whether its sporty, creative or social, finding a hobby you enjoy can help to take your mind off the stress you are dealing with
- Gratitude journaling: Write down 3 specific things you are grateful for every day. This helps you gain a more positive perspective.
- Breath work: Guided breathing or simply sitting in a quiet room and focusing on the breath can help to ground you to the present moment and calm a chattering mind
- Regular exercise: Whether it’s a walk or something a bit more upbeat, exercising at least 5 times a week has been shown to reduce stress
The bottom line
Stress isn’t always bad, it can be really helpful in some situations, but is a cause for concern when it becomes a chronic issue that impacts your overall wellbeing. Practising some of the simple tips mentioned on a daily basis can assist with the reduction of stress and lead to a happier and healthier life.