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What the heck is stress anyways?

Our ancestors experienced stress from predators, battle, and the fight for food. These moments are comparatively brief to the ample time they had to recover and return to a state of calm. In modern society most of us are in a continual state of stress. Beginning the day by waking up to an obnoxious alarm, then followed by what to eat for the day and where to get it, getting the kids ready for school then dropping them off on time, performing well at work, relationship stress and so on. Optimal time for stress is around midday when we have the most resources and energy to adapt to stressors. Stress should ideally decrease throughout the day to assist with sleep in the evening, but it often doesn’t stop there as many of us have to contend with side hustles, studying for an exam, helping kids with homework, cooking dinner in the evenings and list goes on. Moreover, The COVID-19 pandemic has inflicted a lot of extra psychological and psychosocial stressors for the majority which we can all relate to. So, it’s clear why concerns around stress have been popping up in the health and fitness industry more and more lately.

Stress has a massive affect on our bodies and wellbeing. If you’re anything like me, you won’t be truly motivated to slow down and manage stress unless you know exactly why. So, what is stress anyway? How does it affect us? And why is it so important to manage stress?

Stress is a non-specific response by the body to any demand that overcomes the body’s ability to maintain homeostasis. Homeostasis is our internal sense of balance. Stressors can be psychological (e.g. financial or relationship strain), social (e.g. isolation from loved ones, politics), environmental (e.g. forest fires, viral pandemic), physiological (e.g. intense workouts, compromised physical health), or spiritual (e.g. questioning meaning of life). When our brain receives information about this disruption it initiates a response to help the body return to homeostasis, requiring a change or adaptation. This process is often a positive response as stress encourages growth. It is a natural process and is critical to survival, given sufficient time to recover between stressors. The challenge is when an individual is unable to adapt to new demands and the body does not return to homeostasis.

Our bodies will go through three phases once the stress symptom is experienced, and the stressor is not removed. Stage one is the alarm phase. Body releases adrenaline, heart beats faster and breathing quickens. Our body is telling us that something is disturbing their equilibrium and is an appropriate response to the environment. The individual can choose to react in this phase, also known as fight or flight. This can occur before a wedding, in anticipation of a presentation, or when your stuck in rush-hour traffic.

The second phase is adaptation phase. This occurs when the stressor is ongoing, and the body adjusts itself to habituate to this new reality. This phase will make you feel driven, pressured, and tired. It may also cause you to engage in coping behaviours such as drinking more coffee or alcohol. You might experience anxiety, memory loss and be more susceptible to sickness. After significant exposure to the stressor, your body may show signs of deterioration such as organ and tissue inflammation, disturbed digestion, and abnormal breathing patterns. Sometimes these disturbances continue to manifest even long after the stressor is removed. In this phase, the effect of stress is at a deep, unconscious level. These effects often go unnoticed, and the impact is not felt as the stressors have become habituated and feel normal to the individual. Most of us are in a constant phase of adaptation. But just like our tense muscles, we often only notice this tension after we have relaxed.

Stage three is the exhaustion phase. This occurs when the individual has unresolved chronic/ongoing exposure to the stressor. The body’s need for energy becomes greater than its ability to produce it. The body can no longer adapt and is breaking down. There are visible signs of damage to cells, organs, and systems. The stress has recorded itself in the body and the whole body is out of balance. Adrenaline and other stress hormones have depleted the energy reserves of the body and brought most systems to a state of imbalance. It is in this phase that a constitutional weakness or genetic predisposition is likely to emerge, leading to a possible disease or clinical syndrome.

This stress response effects many systems in the body such as the nervous system and endocrine (hormonal) system. Today we will zero-in on how the nervous system is impacted.

When the body takes over during a stress response, it is an instinctual response based on survival and is therefore involuntary; it is automatic and self-regulating just like your heartbeat and breathing. This is the autonomic nervous system coming into play. Within the autonomic nervous system, we have the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. Stress is part of the sympathetic nervous system response. When the sympathetic nervous system kicks in, stress hormones, adrenaline, and cortisol all increase, along with irregular heart rate, trembling, sweating, muscle tension, decreased immunity, constricted breathing halted digestion, racing thoughts, and dry mouth. The sympathetic nervous system does not differentiate between a life-or-death threat and a perceived psychological stress. Consequently, it reacts in the same way by sending some chemical messengers throughout the body and triggering all the physiological changes associated with a stress response. The sympathetic nervous system must be balanced with the parasympathetic nervous system.

The parasympathetic nervous system is the ‘’OFF” system. As opposed to the sympathetic nervous system, it is responsible for our digestion, repair, growth, recovery, and immune system. Healing takes place and allows the body to return to homeostasis. When the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, serotonin is secreted which is our relaxation chemical messengers. We experience a decrease in heart rate, relaxation of muscles, regular breathing patterns, clearer thoughts, regular digestion, strengthened immune system and better assimilation of nutrients. We must maximize the stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system for balance repair and recovery from the stressors.

In conclusion, stress is vital to productivity throughout the day and can be embraced as a tool for success and wellness. However, just like anything else, too much can be detrimental to your health. It is helpful to recognize the need for down time and to engage our ‘'off’’ system to better harness the body’s natural ability to adapt. So go get your ZZZs, say ‘No’ to that event, and go boss your life! Stay tuned for how stress can affect other systems in your body and tips on how to make the most of your down time.

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