To say that life is stressful in recent times might be an understatement for most. Collectively, we are living through the second year of a global pandemic that has shifted our lives in various ways (social, physical, vocational, etc.) and global unrest is escalating with every daily news cycle. Stress is a normal and unavoidable part of our everyday lives, but how we manage our stress has a direct impact on our overall health and well-being.
What is stress?
There are many different definitions of stress available but finding a definition of stress is challenging, as “stress” is subjective. Multiple definitions share some overarching similarities: 1) stress is a universal experience across gender, location, age, ethnicity, and culture and 2) stress is a worldwide problem. Broadly, “stress” can refer to our “physical, mental, or emotional strain or tension.”
Regardless of a “stress” term that many can agree on, we all have encountered stress in a variety of ways, from external to internal elements that lead to physical reactions. How we respond to stress varies greatly from each stressor to each individual. We all know stress.
Stress in the Body
The source, intensity, and duration of stress has a direct impact on our entire body and brain. Stress impacts every body system (nervous, cardiovascular, respiratory, endocrine, gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal, immune and reproductive systems), from our head to our toes. Our stress responses can have a widespread impact on our health — both good (eustress) and bad.
Symptoms of Stress
Nearly 80% of people regularly experience symptoms linked to stress, reporting multiple symptoms that are widespread within the body. Below are some common stress symptoms listed by the body system it is commonly associated.
- Brain: irritability, brain fog, reduced ability to concentrate, headaches, insomnia/sleep pattern, increased depression and/or anxiety
- Cardiovascular: pounding heart (increased heart rate), high blood pressure, increased risk for heart attack
- Respiratory: rapid breathing or shortness of breath, making it difficult to breathe
- Endocrine: hormonal imbalances, increased cortisol (the primary stress hormone)
- Gastrointestinal: weight gain or loss (overeating or not feeling hungry), stomach ache/cramps, nausea, vomiting, heartburn, acid reflux, diarrhea/constipation
- Musculoskeletal: inflammation, muscle tension, lower bone density
- Immune: decreased immunity, lowered immune defenses, increased risk of becoming ill and increased recovery time (from lowered immune response)
- Reproductive: decrease in hormone production and sex drive
The above is just a highlighted list of common stress related symptoms, but stress extends to impacting all systems of our body. Additional common symptoms of stress may include hair loss, skin problems and an overall lack of energy. Ultimately, stress affects us in multiple ways.
Stress in the Brain
How your brain responds to stress is intricate. Stress impacts your autonomic nervous system, which impacts the commonly known “fight or flight” response. Your brain processes stressors through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis), known as your physiological system that processes stress. Your HPA axis is a full-body response to stress that connects the brain and body. Your hypothalamus and pituitary glands are located in your brain, while your adrenal glands are on top of your kidneys. Adrenal glands produce cortisol, the common stress hormone, and your pituitary gland regulates the production of cortisol. The HPA axis is the pathway for cortisol, which impacts your brain’s ability to learn and remember. Balancing your HPA axis and types of stress (good vs. bad) is vital for your optimal health.
Hassles vs. Stressors
We combat stressors from small hassles to major stressors. Small hassles or daily stressors can be defined as minor events that occur throughout our day such as running late for an appointment, being stuck in traffic, having too much to do, and so on. Collectively, daily hassles can be interpreted as minor stressful events that are frustrating and/or irritating. On average, we encounter approximately seven daily hassles that can contribute to a major part of our stress load.
In general, we are equipped to deal with some daily challenges, but when stress become a major event, our bodies and brains react in a variety of ways. Major stressors create uncertainty or fear and are longer in duration compared to small hassles. Examples of major stressful events include a pandemic, illness or injury, marriage/divorce, the death of a loved one, the birth of a child, moving houses and more.
We are all living through an unprecedented stressor — the global pandemic — which has been found to increase stress in adults of all ages, especially younger adults, who are struggling to make day-to-day decisions. Pandemic stress is real and has contributed to widespread mental exhaustion across the globe, with negative health impacts including unhealthy behavior change. The pandemic has increased stress for most (health, financial, mental, etc.) and related stressors have been highlighted for many.
3 Tips to Combat Stress
How our bodies and brains respond to stress may vary depending on the hassle or stressor, the cumulative day, and other factors (hunger, mood, situation, context, etc.). Living through a heightened global stressor, the pandemic, is hovering over all of us. Knowing the way our bodies react to normal stressors for our own well-being is a helpful first step in seeking out strategies that may boost our abilities to combat stress.
- Identify your signs of stress. Take time for personal reflection. We all have different signs for stress and tolerance for stressors at a given point in time. Take notice of your personal signs of stress and its symptoms. Since stress is largely subjective, practice talking about your experiences with stress with your trusted social network or healthcare provider.There are tools to measure your stress that might be helpful to you. Try this free, online Quick Stress Test to screen your current stress level. Be able to know and recognize some of your stressors. Keep in mind, we may not be aware of our stressors (or multiple stressors) until sharing our experiences with others and taking time to reflect on ourselves.
- Listen to your body. Once you recognize or know how your body tends to respond to stress, you can seek out stress-busting techniques that would be the most helpful to you. Start by taking notice of “where” in your body you tend to hold stress and the symptoms you may experience. The location of our stress is different for all of us and may change depending on the stressor. However, knowing “where” we tend to hold our stress can be helpful to manage the various stressors we encounter. One example is you may notice tension in your neck, shoulders, or jaw after a stressful day. Locate “where” your body tends to hold your stress.
- Take a break. It does not matter the type of hassle or major stressor we are encountering or “where” we hold our stress. Simply taking a break is a common stress-relief technique that bolsters many benefits. A break may range from taking a few moments to catch our breath, practicing deep breathing for relaxation, to intentionally pressing “pause” on a trigger of stress for a set period of time. For example, turn off the nightly news report after an exhausting day (mental, emotional, physical) or deliberate time away from screens for a couple of hours, days, or weeks.
Stress is complicated yet a real part of everyone’s lives. Stress has multiple ways it can impact our health from the stressful experience we are currently going through to being linked to a variety of co-occurring health conditions including high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, headaches, gastrointestinal problems, diabetes, depression, anxiety and more. All parts of our bodies are impacted by stress and there are things we can do to help alleviate some symptoms of stress to promote our mental and physical wellbeing. Review this stress tip sheet from the National Institute of Mental Health.
May we all take time to find different techniques to sustain our stress-busting toolbox. Do what is best for yourself. And remain open to trying different stress relief strategies.
In brain health & wellness,