Low energy. Headaches. Upset stomach. Tense muscles. Difficulty sleeping. Loss of libido. Moodiness. Becoming easily agitated. Nervousness. Cold or sweaty hands or feet. Clenched jaw.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever experienced any of these symptoms.
If your hand is up, it sounds like you’ve experienced stress.
Don’t feel bad or weak or afraid if you’re currently experiencing stress. Many of us (including me!) have. You are definitely not alone.
I recall times in my life when my stress levels were completely out of control. Times when my own body felt foreign to me — my skin was breaking out horribly, my pants felt a little too tight, my anxiety levels were high, and my glow and energy were nearly gone. In more intense times, I almost felt paralyzed with stress. Where my mind and body were NOT at peace — where I knew I needed to make changes immediately.
So what did I do? I put on my research thinking cap and dove into the evidence and literature behind stress. As a pharmacist, I knew there were medications that could help. But I wasn’t ready for that. I wanted to try integrative and natural therapies first.
And what I found was incredible. The options to naturally treat stress were plenty. And many options had the science and studies to support them.
I want to share all I’ve discovered about stress with you. Today starts a multi-part series all on stress. What it is, the good and the bad, and natural ways to treat stress.
This week will provide the foundation of stress and include a link to a stress quiz.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU EXPERIENCE STRESS
The glands most involved with stress response are the adrenal glands, pituitary, and thyroid.
What follows is a simplified version of what happens to the body when it is exposed to a stressor. Because I will be talking about specific hormones and glands throughout the series, I think it’s helpful to present this for your better understanding.
- The body experiences a stressor.
- The stressor stimulates sensory nerves.
- Corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) is released from the part of the brain called the anterior hypothalamus.
- CRF activates the pituitary gland (also in the brain), to release adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH).
- ACTH travels through the bloodstream and activates the adrenal cortex (part of the adrenal glands).
- The adrenal cortex releases cortisol and aldosterone, two hormones that increase metabolism and later body fluids which ultimately increase blood pressure. Remember the name cortisol - we'll come back to it next week.
- The stress response ultimately leads to: increased heart activity (heart rate, blood pressure), increased metabolic activity (increasing sugar availability in the body), decreased immunity, increased sodium retention, increased sweating, and changes in the gastrointestinal system.
- Longterm elevations of cortisol in the body comprises the integrity of several physiologic systems.
STRESS: THE GOOD & THE BAD
Stress is the body’s reaction to a change. It’s a normal part of life. Some stresses are good, while others are not.
The human body was designed to experience stress and to react — in many ways stress can be a protective mechanism.
The problem is when stress is negative or continuous without relief or relaxation. This becomes distress.
Distress can lead to physical problems (like the ones listed above) and can bring on or worsen certain medical conditions.
And distress can lead to self-medication where people use tobacco, alcohol, and even food to attempt to relieve stress. Tobacco, alcohol, and most foods people turn to actually keep the body in a higher stress state and exacerbate the problem.
ARE YOU STRESSED?
You may immediately know the answer to this question.
If not, there are validated quizzes to assess stress levels.
Here are two quizzes you may find helpful to determine if you are experiencing too much stress:
HOW TO TREAT STRESS
By this point, you should have determined if you are stressed or not.
If you are, there are two main ways to treat stress.
1.) Minimize the source of your stress.
This requires you to identify the cause and find ways to reduce your exposure to the stress.
If you can do this, great!
If you cannot (or choose not to — there is a big difference here), read on.
2.) Minimize your reaction to stress.
This requires you to take proactive steps to help your mind and body more healthily respond to stress.
The good news is there are MANY ways you can minimize your reaction to stress.
The not-so-good news is they take dedication and time. The strategies aren’t quick fixes like popping a pill. However, if you commit yourself to the strategies, you will see results.
WHAT’S COMING NEXT WEEK
Next week we will dive straight into evidence-based and natural strategies to treat stress.
In the meantime, I encourage you to identify stress sources. What are your top three stressors? Then objectively and critically assess what you can do to minimize the sources of your stress. Then give stress source reduction a try. Have fun with this — do some experimentation! And if this doesn’t work, next week I’ll be back with ways to minimize your reaction to stress.
Wishing you a wonderful (and low stress) week,
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