Stress can impact heavily on your physical and mental health. Our innate and primeval fight/flight response is stretched to the limit due to today’s relentless modern-day stressors. Ensure your happiness and health by recognising the causes of your stress and implementing ways to rediscover your inner peace.
When stress and anxiety are mentioned to me I have this mental cartoon of a red, distorted face that discharges smoke from its ears and is about to explode. Reality, of course, is quite different because nowadays even a serene face could be hiding a highly-stressed person that is just trying to cope with everyday hassles.
In fact, we are not even aware of how stressed we are because the human body is amazingly skilled at managing daily physical and psychological stressors, but even this has its limits. Constant stress can progress to anxiety, depression, high blood pressure or even more serious disorders. It is estimated that around 65% of all doctor visits these days are related to stress! When acute stress becomes more chronic, more severe problems or physical disorders can manifest.
FIGHT OR FLIGHT
We have all experienced it! Something gives you a big fright and it is interpreted as a threat to your survival. The ‘fight or flight response’ is our body’s primitive, automatic, inborn response that prepares the body to ‘fight’ or ‘flee’ from perceived attack, harm or threat to our survival. It is controlled by an intricate network of nerves and hormones that are stimulated when we perceive danger, called the HPA (hypothalamic, pituitary, adrenal) axis. In other words, the brain and body responds immediately with various emergency procedures; all of which will help you to escape the danger.
This is great when the situation is real and acute, but when the body is in a continuous low-level state of arousal it can have serious health consequences, which is what is happening to modern humans. There are constant stressors such as bad traffic, finances, impending deadlines, etc., and these can lead to elevated stress hormone levels as well as physiological changes in the body, which will eventually lead to chronic stress and affect your health.
It is interesting to note that post WWII it was found that young high-ranking Japanese executives suffered strokes and heart attacks due to excessively high stress levels and the term ‘Karoshi’ was coined to describe these overworked individuals who died as a result of it. So, you can work too hard!
Medically speaking, there is a very complex system that regulates the levels of various hormones in the body. When this malfunctions, chronic stress will develop which could lead to other stress-related illnesses.
This could manifest as cardiac problems, obesity, sexual dysfunction or higher levels of inflammation, and has been shown to increase the risk of anxiety and depression.
ANXIETY AND DEPRESSION
Research has shown a definite link between chronic stress and the development of mood disorders such as anxiety and depression as a result of the physiological changes and elevated hormonal levels in the body.
Although there are many drugs to alleviate the mood disorders, it would be more beneficial to start eliminating the stressors and in so doing, increase the body’s ability to heal itself and return to a more balanced state.
There are many symptoms that should warn you to ‘ease off’ but we have become so used to them that we often do not recognise them in ourselves. If you are constantly feeling tired, experience poor memory, feel overwhelmed and experience an increase in everyday illnesses, you might be suffering from chronic stress or even adrenal burnout.
Stress can also affect your looks. You just have to look at how quickly the outgoing American president, Barrack Obama, has appeared to age, to see how something like chronic stress can affect us! This concept has recently been proven to be true by scientists at Stanford University who have identified the first direct link between stress and ageing.
The scientists found that chronic stress speeds up the shrivelling of the tips of the bundles of genes inside cells called telomeres. Telomeres shorten their life span and contribute to the body’s deterioration, providing us with the first real explanation on a cellular level for the well-documented association between psychological stress and increased risk of physical disease, as well as the common perception that unrelenting emotional pressure accelerates the ageing process.
DIAGNOSIS AND TREATMENT
Unfortunately, conventional medicine still relies on psychoactive drugs to mask a stressed patient’s symptoms, which does not treat the underlying cause. At the same time, conventional stress management techniques that are usually used don’t address the biochemical abnormalities and imbalances such as unbalanced adrenal hormone levels that contribute to the detrimental health effects caused by chronic stress.
Functional medicine doctors diagnose and treat chronic stress. Functional medicine integrates conventional medical practices, with what is sometimes considered ‘alternative’ or ‘integrative’ medicine, creating a focus on prevention through nutrition, diet, and exercise; use of the latest laboratory testing and other diagnostic techniques; and prescribed combinations of drugs and/or botanical medicines, supplements, therapeutic diets, detoxification programmes, hormone balancing, or stress-management techniques.
What the patient can expect
During the consultation, the doctor will listen to the patient and gather information on the patient’s history, physiology, and lifestyle. The patient will also complete a subjective stress questionnaire, which will reveal each individual’s stress responses. The unique genetic makeup of each patient is also considered, along with both internal (mind, body, and spirit) and external (physical and social environment) factors that affect total functioning. Additional tests such as hair tissue mineral analysis and blood tests may also be needed to diagnose chronic stress and if your stress is severely affecting your health, other tests may be prescribed. Once a correct diagnosis has been made, the doctor will tailor-make a treatment plan to address each patient’s individual needs.
QUICK TIPS TO REDUCE DAILY STRESS
- Eat at least three healthy and balanced meals per day (organic where possible).
- Exercise daily – take a 15-minute walk during your lunch hour.
- Use good quality dietary supplements (do not self-medicate)
- Reduce your stressors – keep calm in traffic by listening to your favourite music, manage your time better and adapt your work schedule.
- Less smoking, less coffee, less alcohol – especially before bedtime!
- Make time for relaxation – go for a massage or attend a yoga class. It’s good for the soul.
These tips are great, but we have to realise that maintaining balance in today’s stressful world requires a multimodal approach that encompasses various factors, and you have to treat the cause before you treat the symptoms!