As we reach the middle of the year, there is one theme that seems to be recurring with every patient I see…. Stress, fatigue, anxiety, lethargy, low mood. We are all over worked, burnt out and stressed. ‘Stress’ is a word that we hear used often. We have all felt what it is like to have a ‘stressful’ day or week (or year!). However the correct meaning of stress does not just refer to how we feel emotionally. It refers to a process of changes that occur in our body when our body is put under intense pressure or workload. To understand stress, we need to understand about the fight or flight response.
This is our body’s primitive and innate response that enables us to ‘fight’ or ‘flee’ from perceived attack in order to ensure our survival. It gives us the physical capabilities to literally run or fight for our lives. The response is hardwired into our brains and can be difficult for many to control. For example, imagine you are walking down the street and come face to face with a big, black dog growling at you. You are going to want to get out of there as quickly as possible and this is where the stress response kicks in.
However, in the modern world every day is a series of stressful events. We lose our keys, argue with the kids, rush to get to work on time, feel the pressure of trying to get through hundreds of emails in a day or hand a report in on time, then rush back out the door again only to get stuck in rush hour traffic. All these small events initiate the same ‘fight or flight’ response within our bodies.
Changes that occur in the body with anxiety and stress
- The ‘fight or fight’ response is initiated when your brain senses danger- or our 20th century ‘dangers’ such as getting lost, rushing around, losing things, fear or worry.
- Adrenaline and cortisol, our stress hormones, are released from the adrenal glands. These hormones initiate the physical changes that occur with stress.
- The respiratory rate changes. We start breathing faster and using our upper chest and accessory breathing muscles (to get us ready to run fast).
- Our blood pressure increases and our pulse quickens as our bodies attempt to get more blood pumped into our limbs to allow us to better run/fight.
- Our senses sharpen. Our peripheral vision increases to allow us to look for danger. Our pupils dilate.
- Our thought processes quicken and jump from one thing to the next. This allows us to process any potential danger ahead, but in actual fact makes it harder to concentrate and focus on one task at a time. Ever had a million things running through your head?
- Our blood sugar regulation changes- our glucose level increases to allow more available energy. Here comes the 3pm coffee and sugar cravings!
- Our muscles tense up to prepare us for action. This helps us to run faster and get better strength. If no action occurs, the muscle tension remains, leading to poor posture and aches and pains.
- Energy is diverted away from the digestive system. Blood is diverted from the gut to the arms and legs. This leaves us less able to digest our food and absorb nutrients. Bloating, reflux, constipation and/or diarrhea can all occur due to this part of the stress response.
- Energy is diverted away from our immune system. We don’t need to worry about infections when running for our lives, however ongoing stress leaves us open to infections and explains recurrent colds.
- Nutritional stores get depleted. The stress response uses up our B vitamins, zinc, magnesium and omega 3 fatty acids as well as needing cofactors such as vitamin C, chromium, calcium and proteins. On top of this, the changes that occur in our digestive system reduces the absorption of nutrients from the food that we eat, meaning that we cannot replenish our nutrient stores.
Next week’s blog: 5 Simple Steps to improve your body’s resilience to stress