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The Science of Stress

Wednesday 2nd November is National Stress Awareness Day!

Today we’re going to be exploring the science of stress - what actually happens within our bodies when we feel stressed, and why do our bodies respond in this way? We’ll also be sharing some practical tips to help you manage stress when you start to feel it building up.

What happens when we’re stressed?

When we feel under pressure, the nervous system instructs our bodies to release stress hormones including adrenaline and cortisol. These produce physiological changes to help us cope with the threat or danger we see to be upon us. This is called the ‘stress response’ or the ‘fight-or-flight’ response. Evolutionarily, this helps to protect us from danger (for example, to run away from a threatening wild animal) but often the threats we have in modern day life still trigger this same primal response.

What is the impact of this physiological change?

In small doses, stress can actually be positive; the fight or flight response helps us to stay alert, motivated and focused on the task at hand. Usually, when the pressure subsides, the body rebalances and we start to feel calm again. Our parasympathetic nervous system (also known as the ‘rest and digest’ response) starts to kick in, and balance is restored. But when we experience stress too often or for too long, or when the negative feelings overwhelm our ability to cope, then problems will arise. Continuous activation of the sympathetic nervous system – experiencing the ‘stress response’ - causes wear and tear on the body and can result in longer term physical health challenges…

When we are stressed, the respiratory system is immediately affected. We tend to breathe harder and more quickly in an effort to quickly distribute oxygen-rich blood around our body. It can also cause quick and shallow breathing, where minimal air is taken in, which can lead to hyperventilation. This is more likely for people who are prone to anxiety and panic attacks.

Long term stress can also cause our immune systems to weaken. Cortisol released in our bodies suppresses the immune system and inflammatory pathways, and we become more susceptible to infections and chronic inflammatory conditions. Our ability to fight off illness is reduced.

The musculoskeletal system is also affected; our muscles tense up, which is the body’s natural way of protecting ourselves from injury and pain. Repeated muscle tension can cause aches and pains - if you’ve ever felt physically exhausted and achy even though you haven’t exercised, it could be stress causing this. When this muscle tension occurs in the shoulders, neck and head it may also cause tension headaches and migraines.

There can be problems with our reproductive systems too, as a result of long term stress. For men, some studies have shown that chronic stress may affect the production of testosterone and sperm, and may even lead to erectile dysfunction or impotence. Women can experience changes to their menstrual cycles and increased premenstrual symptoms, as stress impacts the natural hormone balance.

How can we manage stress?

So the bad news is that stress can have a serious impact on your overall wellbeing - but the good news is, there are lots of strategies to help you manage stress and re-engage the ‘rest and digest’ response, as opposed to ‘fight and flight’. Here are a few ways you can connect to some calm and activate your parasympathetic nervous system:

  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Deep breathing from your diaphragm
  • Walks in nature
  • Having a bath
  • Getting a massage
  • Reading a book
  • Listening to calming music
  • Gentle exercise

For more support with managing stress, take a look at My Self-Care Sanctuary where you can choose from over 100 classes, including calming breathwork, relaxing meditations and stress relieving yoga classes to help you to unwind and re-connect with your parasympathetic nervous system.