When I was younger, one of the most annoying things someone could say to me was, “Oh I’m feeling so stressed out. I don’t think I can make it to (insert some get together we were planning.)” I felt like it was such a cop out, and I never really understood it. I disliked the sentiment of being ‘too stressed’ that I actually didn’t even believe in it. I told myself that I was never stressed – that I was so cool and relaxed about life! In the end, I think I was in a bit of denial, but also I saw it used as an excuse to not have fun, so I didn’t give in to that. I also didn’t understand all the ways we can ‘be stressed.’ I saw it as a choice some people made. For example, if your job is stressful or driving is stressful, people choose that path, so either change it or shut up. I was quite a delight in my younger days! As I became more aware of what stress actually is and how it manifests, I realized quite quickly that I do get stressed, and I needed to work on ways to reduce it daily. I also became aware of the fact that yes some stress is a choice (sorry, but it’s true!), but some we just cannot control. In this post, I go through what stress actually is, how it manifests in the body, as well as what impact it has on our body systems. My hope for this post is that you recognize that stress is a part of your life, and you work on pinpointing the areas you can change to relieve some as well as realize that some bodily stressors are out of your control. Once we decrease stress in the body, health is not too far behind. To learn ways to decrease the stress in your life, click here!

What Exactly is Stress?

Everyone uses the term stress a lot, but do we really have a good grasp of what it really is? I used to think it was specifically the feeling of overwhelm and that is all. How do you define stress? The way that I like to define it is: Stress is not the events themselves, but our reaction to them. This gives us a lot more power over it, which is always a good thing. Instead of thinking that stress is something that happens to us, when we know it is our own reaction to stressors, there are a lot of ways we can cope. This is a very empowering thought for everyone. We can all be in control of our thoughts and reactions.

Physiological Changes During Stress

Let’s say that we just got called into our boss’s office. Our meeting with them is in 30 minutes. Right now we are just sitting at our desk, thinking about what may happen. This situation can be very stressful, and you may notice that even thinking about this event changes things in your body. As I write this, I notice that my chest feels tighter and my heart is beating a little faster. That is a perfect example of how stress is our reaction to things. I have not been called into my boss’s office, and in fact I don’t have a boss. I am at home, sitting at my computer, but I am getting this reaction.
Our body is a very carefully run organism, and any stimulus we give our brain is rated and then our body reacts through a series of hormonal cascades. In this case, our brain interprets our reaction to an event as a threat or danger and releases a hormone to stimulate the adrenal glands. They in turn release the stress hormones epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol. Epinephrine and norepinephrine stimulate the cardiovascular and circulatory systems: Heart rate and blood pressure increases, while certain blood vessels are constricted to send more blood to muscles and decrease blood flow to internal organs. Blood sugar is increased to give our cells more energy, and all of this is necessary for what our brain interprets as an immediate danger to our lives.

Our body is reacting as though our life is being threatened, so all unnecessary functions are turned down or even off so it can focus on the things that can help us live. When we have to decide to run from a bear or punch it in the face, we need all of our resources going to the parts of the body that will help us do that.

Muscles to help us run or fight, energy to keep us going, heart beat and blood pressure up to get the blood to the muscles, our eyes dilate to give the best vision possible, dilation of bronchi in the lungs to allow more oxygen intake are all physiological changes that occur to increase the chances of the body surviving the threat.

While more energy is going to these areas, certain parts of the body are shut off or slowed down because they are unnecessary for this immediate danger. This includes the digestive and reproductive systems as well as the parts of the front of the brain that deals with short-term memory, concentration, inhibition, and rational thought.

The immune system is also affected. Certain cells are sent to areas that will help the most if the body is impaled by the bear’s claws or teeth.

There are other changes, but these are the major ones. When we think of these physiological changes, they make sense for imminent danger. The thing is, stress these days is more likely to be long-term and chronic. Now these changes do not look so helpful. This is what leads to ill-health and disease down the road.
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Effects of These Changes

The digestive system is shut down when the body is under stress, so that means that when you eat and you are not in a relaxed state, you may get digestive upset like gas, bloating, constipation, etc. You may not be metabolizing and absorbing all of the nutrients found in the food, and you may be more likely to react to certain foods because they are not being broken down fully and because the immune system is on high alert.
Nutrient deficiencies are further exacerbated by the fact that when the body is stressed, more nutrients are needed to keep the response running smoothly. This is a vicious cycle. The more you are in a stressed state, the less nutrients you are going to metabolize and absorb from your food, but you need more to keep your body functioning. Nutrient deficiencies become common in those with chronic stress. While the immune system is heavily set up to help with bites or other areas of blood loss and possible infection, it is less able to work on other areas that need it. The body is prone to sickness if it is under chronic stress. The reproductive system is not functioning to its full potential so a woman may notice her periods become wonky and sex hormones may be thrown off balance as well. All the symptoms that come with imbalanced hormones will then start to show up: acne, painful periods, heavy periods, longer or erratic menstrual cycles, mood swings, decreased sexual drive… Chronic stress can also lead to adrenal fatigue. The point where the adrenals can no longer make enough hormones to keep the body balanced. Some symptoms are fatigue, anxiety, frequent urination, low or high blood pressure, headaches, etc. The body is not meant to be under stress all the time. This leads to eventual exhaustion and possible disease.

Final Thoughts

Stress is out there and in us, and it is just waiting for the right moment to come crashing down. The truth is we are in total control of it, and that is a very freeing feeling. We can choose how we react to the triggers in our lives. I remember watching a Just for Laughs Gags show where they set people up with these crazy scenarios and watch what happens- like Candid Camera. When I watched the reactions of the people who had fell for the joke, they all laughed and had a great time, and I was thinking at the time that I would not have that reaction. I got angry a lot – if I thought someone made me look stupid, if someone was laughing at me, if I tripped or did anything out of the ordinary, most things while driving… All of this and many more things made me so mad. Watching the people who just laughed it all off was a real eye-opener for me. In the end, who really suffers when I am always angry? Of course only me. Holding onto all that negative energy and stress impacts the body in the ways listed above and is not healthy short or long term. The next post will be all about the different types of stress, and how to deal with each one. Stress is a big topic and needs a few posts to really get into it. Until then, take 3 deep breaths and let it go! You may also want to check out this older post for suggestions on how to de-stress. Yours in plant love, Carly
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Elson M Haas, MD. “Staying Healthy With Nutrition.” New York: Celestial Arts, 2006. 597-604. Sherry Torkos, BSc Phm. “The Canadian Encyclodedia Of Natural Medicine Second Edition.” Toronto: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, 2013. 424-428.  
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