Why is stress such a fearsome enemy?
Updated: Dec 1, 2020
Stress comes from many sources and in many shapes and forms, not all of them bad. It is frankly difficult to be alive in the 21st century and not experience stress. We are exposed to so many pressures – pollution, noise, crowds, 24-hour light, processed foods, a never-ending stream of information, commuting, traffic, long working hours, poor sleep, ceaseless demands on our time and attention - all of which add up. So it is crucial to learn to manage it effectively and stay well away from the edge.
Stress does have its advantages – when it is acute and short-lived. This kind of stress primes us for action and enables us for instance to carry out a presentation to the Board with confidence and accuracy. It can stimulate us into coming up with clever ideas and solutions, and it can help us to navigate the rush hour traffic with assurance or deal successfully with conflict at work or at home. It can also of course overwhelm us but in most cases, we can let it melt away as soon as we have completed the task in hand.
On the other hand, stress which lingers and festers and wears you down is a totally different matter – it is uncontrolled and a chronic condition which can cause all sorts of health problems, let alone age you prematurely. If we find ourselves stuck in prolonged periods of emotional strain, our brains, hearts, digestion and immune systems are bound to suffer. Minor effects range from fatigue and irritability to headaches, weight gain (involving visceral fat in particular) and difficulty recovering from exercise, but major consequences include cardiovascular conditions, diabetes, dementia, obesity and cancer - in fact, stress actually causes the brain to shrink.
Cortisol and adrenaline are essential stress hormones and vital to existence. Produced by the adrenal glands, they can act as both friend and foe. Cortisol for instance regulates the wake/sleep cycle, plays an important role in the body’s use of fats, proteins and carbohydrates, suppresses inflammation and regulates blood pressure. One of its main purposes is also to increase blood sugar and thereby provide us with an instant energy boost when we find ourselves in a stressful situation. Our glucose levels take off and give us the wherewithal to respond to any and all threatening situations – it is in effect an emergency survival kit.
Adrenaline also plays several crucial roles. It is activated in physically and emotionally stressful situations when additional energy is required to deal with danger, whether real or perceived. It increases heart rate and blood flow to the muscles and brain, assists in blood sugar metabolism, and helps maintain blood pressure as well as increasing it in response to stress. So, yet again, a critically important hormone linked to survival and it is easy to recognise its presence: your heart begins to race, your palms are damp with sweat, your breathing becomes ragged and you feel a sudden rush of physical strength.
Persistent activation of both these hormones chips away at our health and youthfulness, and unless we learn to deal with them appropriately, we will inevitably pay the price. So if you are regularly experiencing the following symptoms
· A generally negative and pessimistic attitude
· Constant irritation
· Difficulty in thinking straight
· Feeling out of control
· Feeling overwhelmed
it would be beneficial to look for any persistent sources of stress, particularly in your work life, and learning to address them before they cause real damage.
It is worth mentioning here that chronic stress with purpose – for instance, writing a book or studying for a PhD - is different because both the goal and the end are in sight, however distant, and there is therefore a measure of control; it is a form of stress which you can “own” and in fact, by the time you reach your destination, this specific chronic stress is likely to have brought you a sense of resilience and power along with achievement.
So, how effectively do YOU manage your stress levels? Are you feeling overwhelmed? Is stress preventing you from sleeping well? Is it stopping you from enjoying life? If so, do book an initial exploratory chat with me and we will see how I can help.