Stress in our daily lives
Throughout human history the human species has always had to deal with some form of stress, whether from natural causes in earlier times to threats from other humans in more recent times. As we have progressed as a species, we have through innovation and cooperation, found easier and more efficient ways of dealing with the reality of living on this planet. Having adequate food supply and clean water, shelter from the elements and control of the temperature, even getting from one country to another in a matter of hours is hardly worth mentioning these days.
Unfortunately, as these stressors have been removed, far more deadly and insidious ones have taken their place. The cultural and societal pressure of succeeding in being the best you can be at work, with family and your network of friends, has changed the game in many ways. Social media and a globalized world now means we live a 24 hour non stop instant result world with endless amounts of data and stimulation hitting you from all angles, all of the time.
Depression, anxiety and many other types of mental illness are rife throughout the world. We have seen the explosion of autoimmune conditions and other diseases caused by hormone malfunctions and brain chemical imbalance brought on by the constant activation of the flight or fight response in our nervous system.
Effects of a strong stress response
As a rule of thumb, it’s generally not the stress that hurts us, rather it’s our response to the stress. In earlier times, the stress response of elevated heart rate, extremely fast and uncontrollable thoughts, adrenaline surges and sweating would be the very things that would allow us the presence of mind and physical power to run away from a predatory lion or avoid a falling tree. Nowadays, we can feel these same effects walking into a business meeting or at the dinner table with family. We know there’s no life threatening situations around the corner, yet our minds lead our body to believe this is the case.
- When the body is stressed, muscles tense up. Muscle tension is almost a reflex reaction to stress — the body’s way of guarding against injury and pain. With sudden onset stress, the muscles tense up all at once, and then release their tension when the stress passes. Chronic stress causes the muscles in the body to be in a constant state of activation.
- Stress and strong emotions can present with respiratory symptoms, such as shortness of breath and rapid breathing, as the airway between the nose and the lungs constricts.
- Acute stress — stress that is momentary or short-term such as meeting deadlines, being stuck in traffic or suddenly slamming on the brakes to avoid an accident — causes an increase in heart rate and stronger contractions of the heart muscle. Furthermore, the stress hormones — adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol — act as messengers for these effects. In addition, the blood vessels that direct blood to the large muscles and the heart dilate, thereby increasing the amount of blood pumped to these parts of the body and elevating blood pressure. This is also known as the fight or flight response.
- Stress can also make pain, bloating or discomfort felt more easily in the bowels. It can affect how quickly food moves through the body which can cause either diarrhea or constipation. Furthermore, stress can induce muscle spasms in the bowel which can be painful.
- Chronic stress, experiencing stressors over a prolonged period of time, can result in a long-term drain on the body. As the autonomic nervous system continues to trigger physical reactions, it causes a wear-and-tear on the body. It’s not so much what chronic stress does to the nervous system, but what continuous activation of the nervous system does to other bodily systems, that become problematic.
Stress management tools
- Maintain a healthy social support network, spending time working on bettering relationships between family and friends.
- Drink water and avoid abusive use of alcoholic beverages and other addictive dopamine destroying substances such as recreational or prescription drugs.
- Take time out to reflect on who you are and how far you have come as a human being, setting high standards for yourself without constantly criticising yourself.
- Set SMART goals and celebrate achieving them.
- Engage in regular physical exercise and maintain your muscles and joints as well as you can. Understand how biomechanical efficiency can remove a huge amount of stress and pain from your life. Your relationship with gravity is the most important one in your life.
- Get an adequate amount of sleep each night. Aim to rise and sleep with the sun. Help do this by limiting screen time as much as possible
- Practice mindfulness and breathing techniques daily.
These approaches have important benefits for physical and mental health, and form critical building blocks for a healthy lifestyle. If you would like additional support or if you are experiencing extreme or chronic stress, a medical practitioner can help you identify the challenges and stressors that affect your daily life and find ways to help you best cope for improving your overall physical and mental well-being. We hope you’ve learnt enough for this blog to stay as stress free and healthy as you can!