What is stress?

Due to the impact that chronic stress has on our lives, I have decided to write a series of blog posts on this topic.  This blog post aims to answer the question ‘What is stress?’ 

Modern life can be very stressful, we have deadlines to meet, families to look after, financial pressure and so many other factors bearing down on us.  Stress may make you feel alert and motivated, however, it may also make you feel overwhelmed, anxious and unable to cope.  It is important to seek support when you feel that stress is becoming too much.  It is equally important to be on the lookout for signs in others.  As a former sufferer of chronic stress I understand that until you stop and take a break or someone points it out to you, there is a fairly good chance that you aren’t even aware of how stressed you are, or how much it is impacting your life.  I have a good friend to thank for making me aware that I desperately needed to make some changes in my life.

Stress is defined as any demand on the body to adjust.  These demands, or stressors, can be caused by physical, mental or emotional events.   It causes neural and hormonal changes within the body referred to as the stress response.  This response triggers a series of physiological reactions within the body via the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis, or the HPA axis.  This results in the release of the stress hormones – adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol.  These hormones are responsible for the symptoms noted during stressful events. 

The stress response

Stress is thought to be composed of three phases: (Refer to figure one)

  1. Alarm phase.  Our initial response to stress is known as our ‘flight or fight response’ or ’acute stress’.  The flight or fight response was designed to protect us from danger and to keep us alert and motivated.  A perfect example of the flight or fight response is when the prehistoric man was faced with a sabre-toothed tiger – did they run for their lives or stay and fight the tiger? I’m fairly certain that I’d have gotten out of their as fast as possible!!  Once the danger is over the body returns to normal or ‘homeostasis’, without any negative effects.
  1. Resistance phase.  Stress may affect the body in a way that it is unable to return to homeostasis.  Instead, the body is required to adapt and change, resulting in a new normal or ‘allostasis’.  The body can learn to adapt and build resilience to stress so that the next time we are faced with a similar stressful event the body is prepared.
  1. Exhaustion phase.  Although we no longer have to worry about sabre-toothed tigers, modern life is full of stressors that cause the HPA axis to remain switched on.  If we don’t make changes to help us cope, the body becomes overwhelmed and our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing suffers as the body becomes exhausted.  Chronic stress may affect your memory, sleep, mood, and increase the risk of depression, anxiety, diabetes, cancer, digestive disorders and cardiovascular disease.  

Figure one: The phases of stress

A flow chart with information describing the 3 phases of stress and the way the body responds

Who does stress affect?

Almost all of us will have felt stressed and overwhelmed at some point in our lives.  This can be caused by events or situations that happen to us or by our own thoughts, attitudes or expectations.  However, every person will respond differently.  What is stressful for one person may not be stressful for another.  For some simple tasks can be extremely stressful.  Whereas others may be able to cope with large amounts of pressure. 

Causes of stress

For most of us, new experiences, dangerous circumstances or feeling like you don’t have control over a situation causes worry and anxiety. However, some groups of people are more likely to suffer from higher levels than others.  For example:

  • Living with financial insecurity and workplace issues
  • Having, or caring for someone, with ongoing health problems
  • Being part of a minority group
  • Facing prejudice or discrimination
  • Losing a loved one or going through a divorce
  • Becoming an adult, getting married, starting a family or retiring

Factors such as our social and economic circumstances, environment and genetics also contribute to how we respond.

What next?

I hope this blog has given you a better understanding of what stress is, who is affected by it and what causes it.  And also why it is so important to make changes or seek help when dealing with chronic stress.  Naturopaths have many tools to help support individuals during times of stress and to help build their resilience to stress.  You can read more about naturopaths and naturopathy hereIf you are feeling overwhelmed and would like some support consider booking in for a personalised consultation.  Start your journey by booking a free 15min discovery call here.

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