Stress and its effect on the body
Stress is a normal occurrence: as human beings, we all experience stress in everyday life. But while short-term stress can be good and acts as a motivator, stress that is chronic negatively affects a person’s health and wellbeing. Particularly during the pandemic, many people have suffered from isolation, instability and economic worries that seemingly have no end. Understanding stress can equip us with the tools to handle it better.
The stress response is stimulated by the release of two hormones – adrenaline and cortisol. The release of adrenaline is the first component of the stress response. The process begins in the part of the brain known as the amygdala, which perceives a threat and passes this message on to the hypothalamus - a command center, which will activate the sympathetic branch of autonomic nerves to stimulate the adrenal glands. These glands respond by secreting the hormone adrenaline into the bloodstream and resulting in physiological changes. The resulting physiological changes include the heart beating faster and pushing extra blood to the brain, kidney, muscles and other vital organs in preparation for fight or flight, and increased blood pressure and sugar levels for a burst of energy. These changes happen automatically and so quickly that we may not even be aware of them. That is why we can react before consciously processing information.
The second component of the stress response system is known as the HPA axis. Stimulation of the HPA axis causes the adrenal glands to release cortisol. When a perceived threat lasts longer than a few minutes, cortisol maintains the raised blood pressure and sugar levels, keeping the body at speed and alert. Once the threat has passed, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in. Cortisol levels go down and the body returns to its normal state.
Stress is an essential mechanism for our survival and real flight or fight situations. However, persistent and unchecked stress from daily life can lead to long-term or chronic illnesses. Depression and anxiety are both the result of low-grade yet persistent stress that keeps the HPA axis activated, which can profoundly impact physical, mental and emotional health.
The sleep connection
Poor sleep is one of the most common problems associated with long-term stress. Stress can interfere with the hormonal processes that guide the sleep cycle, creating an imbalance between non-rapid eye movement (NON-REM) and rapid eye movement (REM) and reducing overall sleep quality. Stress can also cause unpleasant dreams. Not getting enough sleep then leads to increased stress, bad moods and frustration, creating a self-perpetuating cycle.
Such a bidirectional relationship means that addressing one issue can often lead to improvement in the other. Techniques for managing stress and improving quality of sleep include:
- Stick to a sleep routine of going to bed and waking up at the same time each day
- Go outside for a dose of sunlight to strengthen your circadian rhythm (which regulates the sleep cycle)
- Gentle exercise such as yoga, tai chi and qi gong can induce calm
- Deep breathing techniques promote the flow of vagal activity through the parasympathetic nervous system, making you feel rested
- Meditation keeps the mind from distraction and increases awareness
Remember, stress is like a coin which has two sides, good and bad. While bad stress ruins our health, good stress motivates us to rise to the challenges in life. Learn to harness your stress by being aware, understanding, managing and letting go.