Stress. What a huge subject. It’s something that impacts most of us – to varying degrees – a lot of the time. While the majority would agree that a feeling of stress isn’t a pleasant one, there are some situations when stress helps push us beyond our normal abilities or even thrive!
The impact on how a stressful situation makes us feel – be it anxious, energized, or not bothered at all – comes down to our individual ability to cope with stress emotionally. I certainly notice that in some circumstances I become highly stressed and anxious, while my husband experiences a far more relaxed attitude to the situation. In such a case as this, the physiological impact of the ‘stressor’ is likely to be far greater on me than on him.
Experiencing stress is often a short-term event. An example being running late for an important meeting. The stress of this situation is likely to result in a feeling of anxiety. Pronounced anxiety can be extremely unpleasant and may include symptoms of palpitations, nausea or an upset tummy.
Anxiety is a consequence of short-term stress, but when anxiety takes on a more prevalent role in your day-to-day life it could be argued that the anxiety itself has become a stressor in its own right. For my clients with ongoing anxiety the knock-on effects can include additional problems like IBS, sleep disturbances, headaches, skin conditions or failure to break the cycle of a chronic health condition.
What is a stressor, and how does it link to anxiety?
A stressor is something that engages your body to deal with real or perceived danger. When you experience a short-term stressor, the response is often referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ response.
When this stressor is identified (maybe you have an important appointment that you cannot be late for, but you are stuck in a traffic grid-lock) the body moves into action, implementing a stunning task force of chemical messengers to batten down the hatches and get you ready for action. These chemical messengers include hormones, neurotransmitters (involved in your nervous system) and products of the immune system. The response is quick and effective:
- Blood pressure increases
- Blood glucose levels rise
- Blood fats rise
- Immune cells initiate blood clotting responses
- Blood flow increases to the muscles and brain
- Digestive processes of the stomach and small intestine are inhibited
These physiological changes are very helpful if there is an acute and dangerous situation to deal with. The increase in blood pressure allows nutrition including extra blood glucose and fats to zoom to where it’s needed and produce additional energy. Your brain and muscles benefit from this targeted delivery of extra resource and you become more alert and focussed and find strength you didn’t know you had. Your immune cells work together to start preparing for damage, including increasing blood clotting factors (to help you recover from a physical injury quicker). Your digestive system – which is an energy hungry machine – stands to one side for the greater good of your body, allowing energy to be diverted to more important things.
This response is amazing, and entirely necessary. And short-term blasts can make all the difference in an important situation, whether you are in real danger or need to focus to get something urgent done quickly. However, if this situation of acute stress becomes a regular feature of daily life, can you see how it might become a problem to your health? You don’t want to encourage more sugar or fats into the blood than are needed; you don’t want high blood pressure to become a regular problem; and having thicker, stickier blood isn’t helpful for health over the long-term. There’s also the knock-on effect to your digestive system and all that entails (which I cover in Stress & Health Part 2: Digestion).
Adrenalin and Anxiety
A major player in this fight-or-flight response is the hormone adrenalin. It is adrenalin that makes your heart beat faster and gives you butterflies in your tummy. Adrenalin is a central commander in the physiological changes discussed above. Adrenalin production is a major contributor to feelings of anxiety. Tame your adrenalin production and your symptoms of anxiety should significantly reduce.
There are other stressors, different to life situations, that also trigger adrenalin production and therefore anxiety. I often refer to these as ‘silent’ stressors, because you may not be actively aware of them. Straightforward examples include:
- Caffeine consumption (coffee, tea, cola, energy drinks, chocolate)
- Skipping meals
- Poor nutrition (including inadequate intake of vitamin C, B vitamins and magnesium)
Addressing Your Anxiety
- Reduce your caffeine intake
- Eat regular balanced meals that include some protein and natural fat as well as carbohydrate
- Enjoy green leafy vegetables every day
- Employ mindfulness techniques or meditation to improve your emotional response to stress. This is hugely important and well researched.
If anxiety is having a negative impact on your life and you feel you would like extra support in overcoming it then please get in touch. We can put a plan in place to support you in a way that isn’t overwhelming or extreme, but gently supports you towards regaining control of how you feel.
You can read more about the stress response here.