Identifying and managing stress
We’ve all experienced stress in one form or another. But the way our body responds to stress and the triggers that initiate a stress response in each of us are different.
Stress triggers are known as ‘stressors’ and they are many and varied. Stressors can be social, chemical or environmental. They can be short-term and acute (e.g. being stuck in traffic) or long-term and chronic (e.g. high pressure job), but whatever the cause or nature of our stress, if it’s allowed to continue unchecked over extended periods of time, it can have significant physical, chemical and psychological effects.
Before the most severe consequences of stress are made known, your body will give you warning signals. Paying attention to the way your body functions and listening to these alarm bells when things aren’t quite right, can help you manage stress. But there are simple lifestyle choices we can make to minimise the effects of stress and live happier, healthier lives. Overwhelming research points to simple measures of self-care and the importance of recognising the value in nurturing what’s most important to us.
Acute and chronic stress
Acute stress is short-term. It is the stress we experience in short bursts. This type of stress allows us to effectively deal with bouts of adversity and is predominantly positive for our health and wellbeing. Chronic or prolonged stress occurs over the long-term and exposes our body to ongoing, high levels of cortisol and other chemicals and hormones associated with the stress response. Chronic stress can have a negative impact on our heath.
The effects of chronic stress are extensive and often depend on the individual. The most well-known health issues associated with chronic stress are high blood pressure and heart disease. But stress can also affect our fertility and digestion, damage our skin and muscles, inhibit body growth, suppress our immune system, lead to poor mental health and present weight management challenges. And the list goes on.
What happens to our bodies when we’re stressed?
When we experience a stressful event, two areas of our brain are activated, the hypothalamus, and the brainstem. The hypothalamus triggers the release of cortisol from the adrenal gland. The brainstem triggers our sympathetic nervous system response or our ‘fight or flight’ reaction. This response targets our adrenal gland activating the release of epinephrine and norepinephrine (commonly known as adrenaline). Our stress response gets our bodies ready for action, increasing arousal, alertness, focus and attention. Blood flow to our muscles increases and reduces in our gastrointestinal tract, releasing glucose into our blood stream and creating energy.
This biochemical response of our body is dependent on a feedback system between the brain and the adrenal gland. Generally, during periods of acute stress, the cortisol release is suppressed and kept under control by the feedback it provides to the anterior pituitary gland. However, during prolonged periods of stress, cortisol continues to be released. If cortisol remains at high levels over time, this leads to stress-related health complications and some of the more apparent physical and emotional manifestations of stress.
Caring for stress
The topic of stress is a big one. With so many individual variables it is difficult to address all possible measures of stress relief. But if we consider what the greatest predictors of our longevity and long- term wellbeing are, we begin to understand that taking time to genuinely tune in to our needs and care for ourselves by giving back to the people we love, might just unlock the secret we’ve been looking for.
The longest study to ever look at ageing, the Harvard Study of Adult Development, revealed that close relationships are what keep people happy throughout their lives. Nurturing and maintaining strong bonds with the people who are most important to us helps delay mental and physical decline and is a better predictor of whether we’ll will live long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genetics.
We know this is especially true for Australian women. The Australian Longitudinal Study of Women’s Health studied 12,000 Australian women aged in their 70s-80s. They completed the SF-36, a widely-used measure of self-reported health that also considers mental health. Women who reported high and stable mental health were more likely to be socially engaged and supported. These women also had lower self-reported stress.
Perhaps we need to shift our focus back to caring for what is most important, back to what really makes us who we are – our people. If we know that the best predictor of lifelong health is quality relationships, could we relieve some of the burden put on our child and aged care facilities if we somehow spent more time focused on our relationships and the people most important to us? Unweaving a fabric woven over generations by experience, beliefs, social structures and circumstances is no easy feat, but taking simple steps to facilitate a more socially connected lifestyle will certainly have its benefits. So, get out there and start connecting and conversing. Join your local community group or initiate contact with a friend or loved one. Prioritising social and family values and the sharing of wisdom across generations will not only empower and inform our lives but go a long way toward reducing the negative effects that stress has on our lives.
• Tran T, Hammarberg K, Ryan J, Lowthian J, Freak-Poli R, Owen A, Kirkman M, Curtis A, Rowe H, Brown H, Ward S, Britt C & Fisher J. Mental health trajectories among women in Australia as they age. Ageing and Mental Health, 2018; doi:10.1080/13607863.2018.1474445
• Bryne ML, Whittle S, Vijayakumar N, Dennison M, Simmons JG, Allen NB (2017) A systematic review of adrenarche as a sensitive period in neurobiological development and mental health. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience 25:12-28