Stress is the response of our body and mind to “CHANGE”. Change is the going from one thing, form, phase, place or state to another. Change is the natural part of living.
Stressors are the ever-present real, anticipated, unexpected, imagined element objects, events and circumstances that bring about change.
Anticipated and desired change is often considered positive stressors. Positive stressors bring challenges but also motivation and energy (e.g. a planned celebration or vacation).
Unexpected, undesired or forced change is considered negative. Negative stressors bring worries, anger and grief (e.g. a job transfer, or the loss of a loved one).
Stressors can be related to:
- Our physical body (e.g. a viral infection, an injury or overwork);
- Our mind (e.g. perceived danger or excitement);
- Our emotions (e.g. argument, conflicts)
- Our environment (e.g. high noise level, extreme heat or extreme cold); and
- Situational (e.g. being chased by a bear, a job change or migration).
The impact of stress on our health is dependent on how we perceive or react to the stressors. A specific stressor may be considered positive to some people but negative to others (e.g. public speaking or air travel).
Change is unavoidable. A balance of change and constancy contributes to harmony & well-being.
What happen when we encounter stress?
When we encounter stress, we immediately evaluate the situation. When we perceive “danger” or “needs for actions”, our body starts off a chain-reaction. The brain signals the production of Adrenalin and other stress hormones.
These stress hormones bring changes that prepare us to “fight or flee”– our heart beat faster, we breathe faster, we are more alert, our body release stored sugar and fat for energy, more blood flows to our brain and muscle, and our other body systems down.
When the stress is resolved, our body returns to its natural or normal state.
When we have too much stress or persisting stress, our body cannot get the necessary rest and relief to stay healthy. Severe, chronic and cumulative stress can lead to illnesses and even death.
How does stress impact our health?
When we experience persisting stress, our body tries to maintain the fight-or-flee response. This instinctive response affects every single system in our body. In time, our body is unable to meet the demands and we become ill.
- Muscular system: Muscles are designed to tense and relax; under stress, the muscles may not relax and become fatigued or injured. Symptoms: Back pain, leg cramps, jaw pain, neck and shoulder pain, tension headaches, muscle aches, trembling or shaking…
- Immune system: Constant stress depresses our immune systems and reduces our ability to fight infections. Symptoms: Acne, colds/flus, sores in mouth, herpes, skin rash, asthma, allergies, yeast infection, cancer…
- Non-Vital system: Under stress, less supply of energy and oxygen is sent to the non-vital systems (digestive, urinary) which slow down and eventually become weakened. Symptoms: Heartburn, indigestion, colitis, Chron’s Disease, nausea, water retention, weight gain or loss, diarrhea, constipation, urination difficulties, sexual dysfunction…
- Vital system: Stress hormones make the heart pump and cause the blood vessels to constrict. Symptoms: chest pain, dizziness, high blood pressure, migraine, strokes, heart disease, rapid heart rate, shortness of breath, cold hands or feet…
- Hormonal System: Stress hormones act on other glands in our body to release quick energy; eventually, the hormonal system cannot function normally. Symptoms: arthritic joint pain, diabetes, infertility, lowered sexual desire, menstrual difficulties.
- Emotional system: Stress affects chemical reactions in our brain and intensifies our emotions. Symptoms: anger, anxiety, guilt, depression, restless, jealousy, worries, hopelessness, panic attacks, insecurity…
- Cognitive System: Our brain becomes hyperactive under stress, and in time, it becomes easily stimulated even with lower levels of stress hormones. Symptoms: boredom, low energy, poor judgment, racing thoughts, insomnia, nightmares, preoccupation, restlessness, fatigue, irritability, and distrust.
Stress, Emotions and Health – What’s the link?
Since life is change, stress is an unavoidable and natural part of living. We all experience stress daily, but each of us responds to stress differently.
Our ability to handle stress depends on:
- Our biological threshold for stress
- Our age and health status
- The meaning and significance we assign to the stressors
- The number and intensity of the stressors
- Our ability and skills in dealing with the stressors
- Our habitual response (emotions and reactions) to stress
- Our personality and perspectives towards life
- Our health practice (healthy eating, active living, relaxation, etc.)
Emotions are the ways we tend to respond to specific situations (stressors). Our past experiences and personal meanings influence our emotional response, which includes our feelings, facial and outer expressions, and the changes inside our body.
It is believed that some emotional responses are essential for survivals.
For example, fear in response to danger helps to trigger our fight-or-flee responses and keep us from harm; and love is essential for bonding between individuals.
Like stress, emotions play an important role in our health. Research shows that positive emotions (e.g. joy, interest & contentment) contribute to better health while negative emotions (e.g. anger, sadness & guilt) lead to illnesses and poorer health.
Since stress intensifies our emotions, persisting negative stressors tend to reinforce negative emotions and lead to serious health problems.
What can we do to reduce stress and promote our emotional health?
Our health is influenced by individual, environmental and social factors.
While we do not have control over all our health factors, we can develop personal skills and holistic health practices that reduce the impact of stress and promote health.
Holistic Health Practice?
Holistic health practice is a set of strategies that help to slow down our body’s hyperactivities related to stress. They allow our body systems to recover and promote positive emotions, which act as a reservoir to counteract negative stressors and negative emotions and keep us well.
- Quiet time: Quiet time helps to calm our mind and allow us to recover from stress. E.g. take a long bath, read a book and listen to music, etc.
- Deep Breathing: Deep breathing calms the body and mind, improves our blood circulation system, and increase our capacity to deal with stress.
- Exercise, Stretching & Having Fun: Regular exercises improve our body endurance; increase oxygen, blood flow and nourishment to the brain and all our body parts. Stretching increases flexibilities of muscles and tendons and mobility of the joints.
- Healthy Eating: Avoid or reduce the intake of caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, fat, salt, sugar, and spicy or acidy or fried food. Caffeine makes our blood vessels constrict and may lead to migraines and high blood pressure; spicy or acidy food irritate the digestive system; alcohol and drug may worsen depression. Drink at least 8 glasses of water each day. Eat a balance diet of grain products, vegetables and fruits, milk products and meat/alternatives. Healthy eating helps the immune system and repairs our cells. (Refer to Canada’s Food Guide) Good Postures: Good postures like standing and sitting up straight promote the relaxing of muscles. (Consult doctors, ergonomic specialists, chiropractors and other service providers for suggestions) Progressive Muscle Relaxation: The tensing and relaxing of specific muscles in the body help to release tension and allow more blood flow and bring oxygen to tired muscles.
- Massage: Massages and heat improve blood circulation, relax tense muscles and help to relieve muscle pain.
- Meditation: Meditation quiets our mind through an active process of focusing on our breathing or music or an object. Meditation increases our mindfulness – the nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment. It also decreases our stress hormones, relaxes our muscles, improves our brain function and enhances the health of our body, mind and spirit
- Guided Imagery: The use of images of a scene, an event or a place that we perceive as safe, peaceful, beautiful, restful and happy can help to reduce stress.
- Stress Journal: Keeping track of our stress, responses and how we function under stress can help to identify our optimal level of stress, causes of our stress and ways to reduce or cope with stress.
- Positive Reframing: Negative emotions and too much stress make it easy for us to lose perspective. Learning to see the positive aspects of every situation helps to reduce stress.
- Affirmation: Positive affirmation can be used to counteract negative thoughts. When used with other holistic health strategies, affirmation can contribute to positive emotions and build our self-confidence.