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Stress 101: Improve your health by understanding stress

Ever feel like you just can't do all the things, all the time. Let me give you permission right now to slow down, take some deep breaths, and enjoy a moment of nothingness........

Stress is quite a buzzword these days. It seems like almost everything is being attributed to stress. How can that be? Can stress truly be responsible for all the afflictions we claim it is?

Life is stressful and stress can be both helpful and unhelpful. Understanding the principles of stress and what is happening within your body when you are stressed can be a powerful facilitator of change.


You body has two modes: Fight-or-Flight and Rest-and-Digest. Thank the clever person who named them because not only do they have a catchy rhyme to help you remember, but they are also pretty self explanatory. These two modes fall under the umbrella category of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Autonomic, meaning automatic, elements of our nervous system - the bodily system made up of the brain, spinal cord, nerves, and other receptor organs that receives and interprets stimuli and makes stuff happen. Basically, it is the mama bear of your body.

Fight-or-Flight (sympathetic nervous system): is an automatic physiological and psychological response that your body creates when it encounters a stressful event. This reaction is hardwired in human genetics. It’s the old “If a saber tooth tiger was chasing you…” story (not sure why it is always a saber tooth tiger, but it’s the message that counts in this repeated tale). You’ve probably felt this before:

  • the adrenal gland produces adrenaline, or epinephrine (is the hormonal messenger that causes this cascade of changes in your body)

  • heart rate increases (sounding the alarm for the rest of your body)

  • pupils dilate (to help you see better)

  • bronchial tubes dilate (allows more air to get to the lungs)

  • muscles contract (prepping you for action)

  • stomach decreases movements and secretions (digestion is shut down)

  • saliva production decreases (again, digestion is shut down. Yes, spit is part of digestion)

  • decrease in urinary output (no time to stop and pee)

  • more glycogen is converted to glucose (glucose is quick energy for your muscles)

Rest-and-Digest (parasympathetic nervous system): Is an automatic physiological and psychological response that your body creates when it relaxes. This reaction is also hard-wired into our genetic system. It is the sensation you feel when you participate in something you enjoy; be it listening to beautiful music, enjoying a nice massage or being in good company. You’ve probably felt this before (though it is more subtle than its counterpart):

  • the adrenal gland ceases production of adrenaline (the alarm gets turned off - no more emergency)

  • heart rate decreases (telling the body it’s safe)

  • pupils contract (normal vision returns)

  • bronchial tubes contract (normal breathing rate returns)

  • muscles relax (muscles can begin to repair any damage done)

  • stomach increase his movements and secretions (digestion can resume)

  • saliva production increases (again, digestion can resume)

  • urinary production increases (there is time to excrete bodily waste)

  • glycogen production decreases (muscles don’t need quick energy)


Both of these modes are incredibly important and useful. Stress often gets a bad rap, but it is incredibly important to not only our survival, but the health of our body. Relaxation is often placed on his pedestal because nobody seems to get enough of it these days, but we can't be relaxed all the time - that is not beneficial for survival. The key is balance. These modes are part of the yin and yang of life.

There is such a thing as positive stress or challenge stress. The stress response activates because of a stressful stimuli. The car beginning to slip off the road, participating in intense exercise or the sudden drop on a carnival ride could all produce the stress response. When your automatic system kicks into gear, you get a shot of cortisol (a stress hormone) your brain lights up like a Christmas tree. This produces the "rush" feeling some people enjoy from brief, intense stressors. It energizes and excites us. Believe it or not, even a stressful thought can activate your physiological stress response. Meaning, if your brain perceives a threat - be it real or imagined - your body goes into the stress response. Our stress response is designed to be used for a short duration and is beneficial for a short duration. You knew there was going to be a catch and here it is! When there is an imbalance and that alarm bell is left blaring we run into chronic stress...

Chronic stress, meaning persistent or perpetual stress stimuli, is the stress people are typically talking about when they are discussing the negative impact of stress. Numerous studies have shown that chronic stress contributes to the development of diseases and health issues such as insomnia, depression, anxiety, weight gain. Think about it. if that hormonal responses left on the body becomes drained, fatigued, and a backlog of everyday procedures continue to get put on hold.

Imagine this. You wake up after a beautiful night of excellent sleep, you eat a super healthy breakfast and head to work. When you get to work, something stressful happens and your stress response is activated. That breakfast, which was super healthy, should be digesting, but due to the stress response your body has decreased digestion. Now digestion doesn't cease completely, but your body's not putting 100% into that job right now. It’s busy with the threat. This means, perhaps some of that food, will be put into holding to be digested later, when you've relaxed and your body has time to handle it. How do you think body stores nutritional information that it isn't ready to process yet? You got it, as fat. The main purpose of fat is to serve as a storage system and energy reserve for your body. It's a pretty ingenious system. Our body have a way for us to take excess energy with us to be used later - like an internal lunch box. So even the healthiest breakfast can be translated into body fat when you're stressed.

Now, I don't say this to promote a fear of body fat. Remember, it is designed to protect and nourish you. It doesn't deserve hate, loathing, or condemnation. It is you and you are it, so if you fear and hate it, you fear and hate yourself. And if you hate yourself that thought will probably create a stress response. I know, it's a weird, self-perpetuating cycle, but awareness is the first step on the road to breaking at cycle.

Thankfully the stress response has an off switch. It's relaxation. There are many strategies you can use to bring on the relaxation response:

  • deep breathing

  • meditation

  • prayer

  • massage

  • yoga

  • relaxing music

  • Tai Chi

  • Qi Gong

  • make yourself a cup of tea

  • saunas or steam baths

  • quality sleep

Basically anything that helps you slow down, sink into your body, and help your brain understand that you are safe will bring on the relaxation response. This is an incredibly individualized process which is great because you can get creative here. Deep breathing is probably the easiest strategy to utilize because you take your lungs everywhere. About 5 to 10 slow deep breaths can help quell the stress response.

It is important to note here, that most of the sources and studies consulted when creating this blog post, do not list or recommend technology use, social media, or television. This is most likely due to the addictive quality of media (stimulates our brain in many ways) and the tendency we have to compare ourselves to others when we use it. Constant comparison can produce more stressful thoughts, which we want to reduce.

Stress and relaxation are such an important part of how we live our daily lives. Just as important as the food that we put in our mouths. If you want to change something it helps to understand it.

Knowing how these two systems operate, will allow you to utilize your body's innate responses to improve your life and your health. It’s all about balance.


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