In this masterclass, delivered live to Ad Astra members, we looked at what stress is, how it affects us and what we can do about it.

So, how stressed are you?

There are three ways stress can affect you. You may notice symptoms from all three, or just one, some may leave you for a while and return, or change or progress into other signs, but these are the main ones to look out for.

Difficulty relaxing, sleeping, or feeling ‘wired’Anxiety and feelings of not being able to copeDrinking
Heart racing or thumping, missing a beat or chest painPanic attacksGambling
High blood pressureDepressionOver or under eating
Headaches and tight musclesSadnessCompulsive behaviour such as shopping, internet use, sex
Low libidoIncreased irritability or angerIncreased alcohol consumption or drugs use
Weak immune systemUnusual loss of memory or concentration 
Digestive issues such as inflammatory bowel  

Is stress bad for you?

Stress is a normal human reaction to a new situation, real or imagined. A new situation that moves your body out of homeostasis – the state of balance; equilibrium.

Stress helps us adjust to new situations and recognise when perhaps we need to make changes to restore equilibrium. In response to a stressor; something that causes stressful situations, your autonomic nervous system produces physical and mental responses using hormones:

               Cortisol                                              Adrenaline                                         Noradrenaline

These hormones prepare the body for high octane energy release so that we can react quickly to protect ourselves. I often use the analogy of running away from danger like sabre toothed tigers!

But stress isn’t always bad for us, it can be a lot of fun, providing thrills and excitement and even sharpening our mental capabilities before a big presentation or in an emergency situation, for example.

As in the affects of stress, it can present itself in three ways too;

               Acute                                                  Episodic                                                            Chronic

Acute stress is not always a bad thing and can be where we get our enjoyment for rollercoasters but may also be hard to recognise as a longer-term problem in the making. Acute stress shows itself with short-term symptoms such as ‘thumping heart’, emotional outbursts, headaches, disturbed sleep. Episodic stress is when these symptoms go away but return sometime later due to several stressful events, and chronic stress is the experience of symptoms over a period of months which may be related to work, family, ill health, or trauma. Often in chronic stress, the symptoms accumulate and become less intense as you begin to live with them. It may not be until a new single stressor is encountered that you recognise it as chronic stress.

How does the body respond to stress?

Your body’s response to stress can vary depending on age, gender, personality and previous experiences. There are always three stages the body goes through.

Alarm                                            Resistance                                         Recovery or Exhaustion

You will initially perceive danger or recognise a stressor, which triggers the release of hormones for energy, diverts blood flow from the digestive system and suppresses the immune system as non-essential functions. Your heart rate increases, but blood vessels constrict (get narrower) to the non-essential areas, to produce increased blood flow to the major muscle groups – often you will feel a change in your legs or arms and a sickly feeling in your stomach. That’s the alarm response.

During the resistance stage, your body will continue to release these hormones at a slightly reduced rate if the situation is not resolved. However, it can’t keep that up for long and your sleep, digestion and immune system will all be impacted.

In recovery or exhaustion, the situation is resolved and the body recoups. You will notice your body is less able to function normally, if the hormones have been released for as long as the body can cope, you will be exhausted. This leads to serious health conditions.

Can you picture these three stages in the three ways stress presents itself? Acutely, when faced with an accident perhaps, chronically whilst dealing with a stressful job or episodically when faced with repeated stressors such as family, exams or difficult work situations.

Fight or flight? The hormones responsible

Adrenaline, Noradrenaline and Cortisol are the hormones that flood your body in the alarm stage. They are released from the adrenal glands near the kidneys, are catabolic (cata: down, bolic: muscle mass and protein production), meaning they suppress muscle growth and protein synthesis.

Here are the short-term effects:

First response – quick-fire energySlower release from nerves Neurotransmitter-likeReleases sugar into the blood
Raised heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, dilates pupilsPrimary function increases blood pressure & raises heart rateAffects the whole body including brain & supports adrenaline & noradrenaline
Digestion stoppedBurns fat to release glucose for energySuppresses digestion & immune system
Burns fat to release glucose for energy Interrupts sleep rhythms (see 12 Ways to Get Better Sleep)

When combined in episodic or chronic stress, these hormones will result in repeated bouts of illness – do you get a lot of colds? Other longer-term effects of high stress hormones include:

  • Insulin resistance due to the high levels of sugar released into your body and consumed, thanks to increased appetite & cravings
  • Episodes of bloating, constipation, acid reflux or IBD (Inflammatory Bowel Disease), because your digestion will be repeatedly suppressed
  • In women the progesterone levels go down, putting you at risk of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome
  • Muffin top, or accumulation of fat around the middle
  • Over, or under eating
  • Anxiety and/or depression.

How to reduce your stress levels

It goes without saying that if you can, remove the cause of the stress! If this isn’t possible, or will take a long time to achieve, here are some tactics you can employ to reduce your stress levels.

Stop exercising!

If you’ve gone hard – you should go home… Exercise actually increases the fight or flight hormones, so keep your exercise sessions gentle with restorative yoga, walking, Tai Chi and only two, short duration, heavy weight-based sessions a week.

Eat more!

Food can be a stressor and you’re occasionally at the mercy of hunger and cravings. To counter this, try switching from three large meals a day, to five small meals a day. Make sure protein (nature’s appetite suppressant), is included in every meal, along with fruit and vegetables. Make starchy carbs your lowest priority. Up your water intake too, as dehydration can also muck up your digestion and blood pressure.

Get therapy!

I don’t mean you need to book into a session on the coach today… There are some great meditation and sleep apps out there at the moment that help you get better quality sleep, one of which we looked at in the Menopause & Sleep Masterclass. Nidra Yoga is also routed in meditation and teaches you breathing techniques for grounding and mindfulness.

And a favourite tactic for many – massage! Not an elbow to the glutes type massage, but a calming one, for the upper back, neck and head. Bowen Therapy is a great example, as is aromatherapy and Indian Head Massage.

And if you do need more help, from a professional who can unlock trauma and support you in moving away from chronic stress, don’t be fearful, ask for help with mental health issues.

Coming up next…

In the next blog, I’ll take you through some simple breathing techniques and yoga poses that slow your heart rate, reduce your blood pressure and prepare you for restful sleep. Watch this space!

These links may help you further:

Headspace App                 Sleepyhead Program       Oxfordshire Mind             Crisis Text Line                  Carterton Counselling Directory                               Ad Astra Yoga Classes