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  • Writer's pictureRachel Ray

‘Stressed’ backwards spells Desserts

What does stress mean to you?

According to the NHS, ‘stress is the body’s reaction to feeling threatened or under pressure’. It can manifest itself physically, emotionally or psychologically and is the body’s response to anything that needs attention or action

The World Health Organisation labelled stress ‘the health epidemic of the 21st Century’

Stress is a primitive response from when we first inhabited the earth and a survival instinct to keep us alive at a time when we were at threat from woolly mammoth and sabre tooth tigers. Unfortunately, when you feel threatened in the 21st Century, your brain doesn’t distinguish between the cause of the stress and prepares your body in much the same way as if you’d stumbled across a sleeping sabre tooth tiger.

What Happens in your Body When You’re Stressed?

Our nervous system is a complex system made up of a number of parts that send and receive information to control our body and allow us to function. One part of the nervous system is the autonomic nervous system which controls all processes that are automatic or involuntary. This system acts unconsciously to regulate body functions such as heart rate, digestion, respiration, urination and so on.

Within this autonomic nervous system, there are 2 sub-systems. The sympathetic nervous system which ‘speeds things us’ and drives the ‘fight or flight’ response in stressful situations and the parasympathetic system which ‘slows things down’ and is active in the quieter ‘rest and digest’ phase.

Fight or Flight

Short term stress response is essential for our survival. It enables us to run for that bus that we’re about to miss or to jump out of the way of a car that is heading towards us. It is known as a ‘fight or flight response’ allowing us to physically fight or to run away when faced with danger. That was crucial when we were surviving out in the wild but it’s less appropriate when you’re sitting in a traffic jam or having a stressful day at work.

Get ready for action . . .

Your sympathetic nervous system is alerted to potential threat and signals the following changes;

Adrenaline is released to prepare your body for fight or flight. Your heart beats faster to pump more blood around your body getting to the muscles that are needed for rapid response. Your muscles tense and get ready for action. Your breathing becomes fast and shallow to take in more oxygen to power the muscles. Pupils dilate so that peripheral vision is reduced, giving you tunnel vision. Glucose is released from the liver into the blood stream to maximise blood glucose levels and provide energy. Blood is diverted away from the digestive system and any organs not needed for rapid response, which can give you feelings of nausea or ‘butterflies’. Thoughts start racing as quicker thinking can help us to evaluate danger and make rapid decisions, but this can make it difficult to concentrate on anything else. As the body is in danger it sweats to keep cool and you might feel clammy and sweaty.

Does any of this sound familiar? How many sabre tooth tigers have you encountered today?

Rest and Digest

When the perceived threat has gone our body systems are designed to return to a normal function with a relaxation response and the parasympathetic nervous system takes over. It controls the body’s ability to relax and its main aim is to conserve energy and regulate body functions like digestion and urination. It slows our heart and breathing rate, lowers blood pressure and enables digestion.

Good Versus Bad

Not all stress has a harmful or negative impact on the body. In actual fact we all need a level of stress to motivate us to achieve things in our daily lives

This ‘good stress’ or ‘Eustress’ is a beneficial stress. Think of the excitement of the roller coaster, a scary movie, a fun challenge, the anticipation of a first date or the first day at a new job. This stress is important as it enhances our mental ability and energy, sharpens our thinking and improves our stamina and strength. Eustress produces positive feelings of excitement, fulfilment, meaning, satisfaction and wellbeing.

But It’s A Question Of Balance

We probably all experience short period of acute stress linked to work, life and family events. This can create symptoms such as anger, anxiety, irritability and acute periods of depression. When the perceived threat has gone, our body systems are designed to return to normal function.

However, when the stress persists for a longer duration, it becomes chronic stress and the processes that return us to normal function don’t occur often enough. The body remains almost constantly in some degree of stress and this can be harmful to both physical and mental wellbeing.

A constant feeling of stress can negatively affect health if it goes untreated and signs of chronic stress can include aches and pains and muscle tension, decrease in energy, difficulty sleeping, disorganised thinking and trouble concentrating, fatigue, a feeling of loss of control or helplessness, frequent illness and infection, gastrointestinal complaints and upset tummy, headaches and nervousness and anxiety.

When Does A Normal Stress Reaction Become A Problem Stress Reaction?

Dr Rangan Chatterjee in his book ‘The Stress Solution’ provides a very clear explanation of the dangerous longer-term effects of a healthy stress response that is out of control.

Examples include;

1. Healthy Stress Response Raised blood pressure in the short term to transport more blood to the brain

Long Term Harmful Effect Chronic high blood pressure increases the risk of diseases such as heart disease and stroke

2. Healthy Stress Response Increased blood clotting will help save your life if you have a bleeding wound

Long Term Harmful Effect Long-term tendency for blood to clot increases the risk of stroke, heart attack or deep vein thrombosis

3. Healthy Stress Response The body’s resources are diverted away from digestion as this is non-essential for survival at that time

Long Term Harmful Effect If digestion is affected for too long, digestive complaints may result such as constipation, bloating, indigestion and IBS

4. Healthy Stress Response The emotional brain is on high alert to look out for threats

Long Term Harmful Effect If this becomes long-term, it will make you more prone to anxiety as you start to worry about everything and see danger when there is none present

5. Healthy Stress Response Increased insulin resistance in the short term means your body doesn’t store sugar in your liver and muscle cells, with more sugar staying in your blood stream to be available for your brain

Long Term Harmful Effect Long term insulin resistance contributes to the development of type 2 diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and the production of harmful cholesterol

What Can You Do To Tackle Stress?

Finding ways to manage stress is important to overall wellbeing whether seeking professional treatment or engaging in self-help and relaxation therapies.

Do you know the cause of your stress?

Write a list of all the areas of your life – work – family- daily routines – relationships – feelings about yourself, and note down where you experience pressure or stress. Are there changes that you can make to these situations that might reduce the stress? Being aware of what the triggers to your stress are, is a good starting point to seeking help in dealing with them.

Talking is a great therapy and we often hear the phrase ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’. You could talk to family or friends or a professional such as your GP or a counsellor. The Samaritans offers support to anyone in emotional stress, struggling to cope or at risk of suicide

Time Management. Stress can often be the result of being ‘time poor’ or having too much to fit into your day. Learning to identify and prioritise task and goals allows you to focus on what is really important. If that reveals that you really do need 25 hours in a day, then perhaps it is time to make some changes so that your daily load is more realistic.

Breathing is life-giving in more than one way. Cleary we all breathe to survive but how do YOU breathe? Many of us have a poor breathing technique, breathing quite shallow at the top of our chest rather than using the full extent of our breathing muscles. Focusing your attention on your breathing can be very calming and there are many exercises that you can follow. Breathing is an important part of relaxation exercises such as yoga and Pilates. We relax more on the out-breath, so my favourite calming breathing exercise is to breath in for 4 counts and then breathe out for 4 counts. As I settle into this pattern, I lengthen the breathing out part to 6 counts, then 7 counts, then 8 counts. I find this very relaxing and calming.

Sleep is often affected if you’re under stress. Have a look at my earlier blog post for tips on a good sleep routine.

Avoid stimulants that do the opposite of keeping you calm, such as alcohol, nicotine, caffeine and refined sugar. If you don’t want to cut them out completely, try cutting down or making different choices. Alternate alcoholic drinks with soft drinks or try one of the many quite tasty alcohol-free options that exist.

Consider how you could cut down or stop smoking and ask for help if needed from your GP or local pharmacy. Instead of reaching for sugary snacks grab a banana or some seeds and nuts. Personally, I love a strong cup of coffee from our fancy coffee machine at around 11am each day, but the rest of the time I drink either decaffeinated coffee or mint tea.

Prioritise relaxation. It’s easy to say but if you’re stressed, relaxation is a good place to start. Stepping away from something stressful even if only for a few moments can give you the time and space to feel calmer. You don’t have to commit to an hour class somewhere that you can’t afford the time to attend. Where in the day can you find 10 minutes to just do nothing? Or to drink a mindful cup of coffee in the sunshine? Or to practice 3 minutes of calm breathing with your eyes closed and your phone switched off?

Relaxation doesn’t have to be just sitting still. It can involve gentle exercise, you could take a walk, or enjoy a class such as yoga or Pilates. Getting up from your desk and walking outside for 10 minutes may be just the reset you need.

Develop your interests or hobbies. Sewing, kitting, jigsaws, playing an instrument, creative writing, fishing, crosswords, photography, baking, gardening. Hobbies can help you to be creative, stay in shape and socialise too. Whatever you choose, doing something that allows you to focus your mind elsewhere can be very beneficial.

Listen to music. We have so much ‘noise’ around us but selecting some music you really love can take you to another place completely. When my head is so full of noise and jumbled stuff, I often select some calming classical music or soulful instrumentals to listen to. What would be your favourite tracks to relax to?

Reflexology is Relaxology

Clients often say to me ‘I’ve never experienced relaxation like this before’ after a reflexology treatment. The treatment is very relaxing and allows your body to activate your parasympathetic nervous system to encourage you to ‘rest and digest’

What I often observe with clients when I am doing the treatment is tummy gurgling, sighing, deeper breathing and sometimes snoring. The feedback I receive is that they have the feeling of an empty mind, that it’s switch off time or ’Me’-time, a feeling of weightlessness, feeling ‘floaty, feeling aware but not aware and just deeply relaxed.

To find out if reflexology could benefit you to relax and reduce your stress levels select the link

Where to Find More About Stress and How To Deal With It

  • The Stress Solution : Dr Rangan Chatterjee This book identifies the key stresses in everyday life and offers a 4 step plan to help you take back control and lead a more fulfilled, calmer life. Available from all good bookshops and online.

  • The Stress Management Society has some great advice on dealing with stress. There is a free guide and many articles about positive steps you can take.

  • The NHS website. Enter 'Stress' in the search bar

  • Mental Health Charity 'Mind. Enter 'Stress' in the search bar

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