If I’m totally honest, it’s very rare I meet someone who isn’t experiencing a certain level of stress. Let’s face it – the world we live in is full of stressors.
Urbanisation and the built environment expose us to toxicants of all kinds, including things like noise, air, and light pollution, as well as electromagnetic radiation (EMR) . Our parks, sporting grounds and greenspaces are sprayed with toxic chemicals, while our food is also laden with chemicals.
All of these things cause stress on a physiological level, making our poor little cells work overtime as they attempt to perform their everyday activities to keep us functioning optimally, all while trying to deal with this onslaught of stress.
But what about psychological stress?
It is clear that the industrialised world we live in perpetuates both physiological and psychological stress . We have never been more “busy” than we are now, with endless lists of priorities from maintaining jobs, raising children, and social and relational commitments, all while trying to look after ourselves. Throw on top of that an everchanging post-pandemic geopolitical climate exacerbating financial, social, personal, and economic pressures, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for making a stressed out human.
72% of Australians who participated in the 2015 Stress and Wellbeing in Australia survey said stress significantly affected their physical and mental health, emphasising family, health, and financial issues as the most stressful .
One recent paper has reported that work-related stress, which is a significant burden on Australians costs our society around $3.98 billion , so it’s no surprise people are constantly searching for how to manage stress at work.
With all that in mind, it’s no wonder people are constantly looking out for ways to manage stress levels!
Stress is normal
Our bodies, like other animals are built to respond to changes in our environment, so that they can maintain a state of balance, or homeostasis. Homeostasis is essentially the “sweet spot” of physiological functioning, where all our bodily processes are running smoothly and optimally as they need to for us to function normally.
Sometimes things disrupt the maintenance of homeostasis, and so our bodies adapt in certain ways to try bring us back to balance. This adaptive process of responding to stressors to get back to our baseline of homeostasis is termed allostasis .
To illustrate this on a very basic level, imagine you’re a hunter-gatherer, sitting around the fire in the evening with your tribe, maybe sharing a meal – you feel pretty relaxed as you wind down for the day. Next minute, you hear a rustle in the bushes behind you…
What happens next is your body engages the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which is essentially your “fight / flight / freeze” mode to prepare you to deal with whatever threat lies in those bushes. At the same time, the hypothalamus gland in your brain stem kicks in to communicate to the pituitary gland, which then kicks in to talk to the adrenal glands so they can mobilise your body to do something about this stressor you have to deal with.
All these internal processes are getting ready to release primary mediators like cortisol and adrenaline which will prepare you to either confront the threat, or run so you can get the hell out of there!
There are many body systems working together in a beautiful biochemical dance which is perfectly adapted for helping you deal with whatever the acute threat may be, but I’m drawing attention to the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the activation of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) because they are key players in responding to acute stressors .
These adaptations are essential for our survival. We need to be able to respond to changes in our external environments so that we can literally stay alive.
These processes are, however, self-limiting.
To illustrate, let’s go back to the camp-fire situation…
You realise the rustling in the bushes was just a tiny little mouse (phew!), so you start to calm down. Because the threat has subsided, your SNS starts to wind back, while your parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS; also known as “rest and digest” mode) takes over, directing blood supply back to your vital organs rather than your muscles and periphery. The intricate feedback system that makes up your HPA axis also works to re-establish balance now that the threat is gone, and you eventually go back to feeling cool, calm, and collected.
This is a wonderfully adapted system which is perfectly designed for dealing with acute stressors. The problems tend to arise when the rustling in the bushes doesn’t ever stop…
When stress becomes a problem
As we’ve explored, our bodies are adapted to deal with short-term bursts of stress. The thing is though, modern-day living throws stressors at us consistently and relentlessly.
Additionally, your body cannot distinguish a real, physical threat from a perceived threat either, so the feeling of being stressed, anxious, and on-edge from all the stressful things in your life (work stress, relationship stress, financial stress, etc) tells your body it needs to mobilise to deal with the stressor.
So, whether it’s a bicycle about to hit you as you cross the road, or you are replaying the memory of your boss yelling at you at work earlier that day, your body switches on the same stress response.
Chronic activation of the human stress response not only sets in motion chronic disease, but it also acts as a contributor to it, as it ramps up systemic inflammation, suppresses vital processes of growth and reproduction, and hinders immune function .
I intend to explore more deeply how stress affects us and our many body systems and processes, but for now, you get the picture.
Daily stress inflames us, exhausts us, and makes us sick, but it is extremely important to note that it is how people respond to this daily stress which is what actually determines their risk of developing chronic disease .
How to manage stress
Although stress is an inevitable part of life (especially modern life, as we have discussed), you can learn how to manage stress and anxiety by learning and practicing simple and effective stress management skills every day.
There are so many great tools and stress management techniques out there, from practicing certain breathing patterns, to somatic experiencing, to grounding exercises, mindfulness practices, going for a walk in nature (my favourite), and the list goes on!
To get started, I suggest having a look at my Top 3 Strategies for Managing Everyday Stress.
These are very simple, easy to practice, and can be done as often as you like throughout the course of a day. They can be used to manage stress at work, school, university, or wherever and whenever you feel stressed.
The power of these exercises comes from practicing them regularly, so some people prefer to focus on one, say, once or twice daily for a week, before then trying the next one. Find what works for you.
Looking for a naturopath for stress management?
My approach to supporting you in managing your stress includes a combination of:
Exploring and addressing the causes of stress in your life
Investigating any physiological or biochemical imbalances which may be impacting how your body and mind respond to stress (i.e. nutritional adequacy, digestive function, hormonal regulation, etc)
Supporting your body’s tolerance to stress by enhancing your mental, emotional, and physical resilience using a range of dietary and lifestyle modifications, and natural remedies for stress such as herbal medicines and nutritional supplements where necessary
Jump on a Free Call with me to see how I can support you to manage stress naturally.
Australian Psychological Society: https://psychology.org.au/getmedia/ae32e645-a4f0-4f7c-b3ce-dfd83237c281/stress-wellbeing-survey.pdf
Image credit: Photo of woman with hands on her face in front of a laptop by Anna Shvets