Most people will automatically recognize the word stress and are aware of stress in their daily lives. We generally use the word stress when we feel everything has become too much, we are overloaded and wonder whether we can really can cope with the pressures/ demands placed on us. On a biological basis, anything that poses a challenge or threat to our well-being is a stress. Some stressors are good as they can motivate us, can inspire creativity, can change us, alter our perception of a situation and move us into a better situation or place. However, many stressors can have negative effects on our brain and bodies if not addressed appropriately.

In 2010, The American Psychological Association had performed extensive surveys on Americans. They found that we live in an overstressed nation. Primarily it is due to the effects of prolonged financial and other recession related difficulties. Americans are trying to balance work, home life and make time to engage in healthy behaviors. Stress is not only taking a toll on their personal health, but also affects the emotional and physical well-being of their families.

In general, they also found that the majority of Americans recognize stress levels remain high and exceed what they consider to be healthy. Most understand the importance of healthy behaviors like managing stress levels, eating right, getting enough sleep and exercise. They report that being too busy as the primary barrier preventing them from better managing stress, and a lack of motivation, energy and time.

It was found that most Americans are living with moderate amount of stress. It was determined that most were a 4 -7 on a scale of 1-10.

The top seven causes of stress based on the 2012 surveys by The American Psychological Association were as follows:

  1. Job Pressure
  2. Money
  3. Health
  4. Relationships
  5. Poor Nutrition
  6. Media Overload
  7. Sleep Deprivation

The study showed that 77% showed regular physical symptoms of stress. 73% showed regular psychological signs of stress. Money and work was cited by 76% as main causes of stress. 48% suffer from sleep deprivation due to stress. 48% also noted their stress levels have increased in the last five years. 33% noted they have extreme stress.

SYMPTOMS OF STRESS

The effects of stress are unique and vary in intensity from one person to another. The reasons for this may be due to genetics, learned behavioral responses, prior traumas, diet, neurotransmitter levels and others. We have categorized symptoms of stress into four parts, body, mind, cognitive and behavioral. These are by no means complete listings and other medical problems can contribute to these symptoms as well.

BODY: Cramps, muscle spasms, back pain, chest pain, sweating, headaches, elevated blood pressure, lowered immunity, sleep disturbances, erectile dysfunction, loss of libido, heart palpitations, increased heart rate, upset stomach, irritable bowel, constipation, diarrhea, obesity, nausea, dizziness and generalized joint and muscle achiness.

MIND: Constant worrying, forgetfulness, memory problems, inability to concentrate, poor judgment, disorganized, racing thoughts and negative or pessimistic view on life.

EMOTIONS: Moodiness, short temper, anger, irritable, feeling overwhelmed, inability to relax, depression, anxiety, feelings of isolation and loneliness.

BEHAVIORAL: Eating too little or too much, food cravings, drug and alcohol abuse, frequent crying, social withdrawal, relationship problems, procrastination, neglecting responsibilities, and nervous habits like nail biting.

NERVOUS AND HORMONAL RESPONSES TO STRESS

In 1936, a physiologist by the name of Hans Selye performed extensive experiments on mice and was one of the first scientists to evaluate the effects of stress. The conclusion was that their were many things that could cause “stress”. Regardless of the stressor all of the mice developed three basic physiological changes. They were: stomach ulcerations, diminished lymphoid/ immune tissue and enlarged adrenal glands. At first his observations were not readily accepted and were considered to vague. However, later studies proved his observations on mice also applied to the human body. With further studies it was indeed found that “stress” had huge effects on the brain, neurotransmitters, nervous system, hormones, the digestive tract and immune system. The bodies reaction to stress can be broken down into three basic stages, alarm, resistance and exhaustion. The alarm stage is the initial response to stress and is also known as the “fight or flight” response. This is were the body is flooded with stress hormones cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine. This is fine for a short period of time and it is healthy at this stage to react by exercising to release the energy and effects of the hormones released. However, repeated episodes of the alarm stage with elevated cortisol can lead to elevated blood sugar, gastric ulcers, elevated blood pressure, stroke and cardiovascular problems.

The next stage is the resistance stage. The body at this point attempts to deal with stress levels by drawing on energy reserves and other nutrients stored in the tissues. If stress levels diminish the body can begin to replenish itself and repair damaged tissue. However, with persistent stress levels the body is always in a “catch up” mode. Many people can remain in this stage for years. So many people teeter on just being healthy enough to cope with the daily demands of life. It is no wonder why many patients feel tired, get the latest “bug” and why they have, back or neck problems.

Overtime patients will finally come to the exhaustion stage. At this point the bodies reserves are used up or exhausted. Often this stage is known as overload, adrenal fatigue or burnout. This stage may even lead to Addison’s disease. By this time there can be considerable damage to the tissues and organs. Often there is significant changes in the hippocampus in the brain leading to memory problems, anxiety and depression. Reversal of this stage is more difficult and may take months to reestablish balance to the brain and body.

There is an area of the brain that is referred to as the limbic system. It is located in the center of the brain and is involved in control and expression of moods and emotions, storage of recent memory, control of appetite and emotional response to food. The limbic system consists of the Hypothalamus, hippocampus and the amygdala. These three sections of the brain have tremendous affects on the hormonal/ endocrine system and the autonomic nervous system that influences all organs and blood flow in the body. Stress has direct affects on this area of the brain as well.

The hypothalamus plays a significant part of regulating the hormonal system of the body. It is part of the HPA axis. The HPA axis consists of three main glands and parts of the brain involved in regulation of most of the entire hormonal system. The HPA axis is made up of the hypothalamus, the pituitary (known as the master gland) and the adrenals. The hypothalamus is influenced largely by serotonin and dopamine stimulation, both of which are effected by stress levels. The hypothalamus will release CRF (cortico-releasing factor) which influences the pituitary which then releases ACTH (adrenocorticotrophic hormone) which stimulates the outer layer (cortical layer) of the adrenals. This causes the release of cortisol, and other adrenal hormones that influence mineral balance and sexual hormones. As mentioned before, excessive cortisol production has significant effects on the body metabolism.

The release of two stimulating adrenal hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine or also known as adrenaline and noradrenaline is accomplished primarily by the hypothalamus. The brain has a central role in regulating “stress” hormones and nervous stimulation from stress.

SELF HELP FOR STRESS

The importance of dealing with stress is vitally important to each one of us. The thing to remember is to take small steps each day. To think we will conquer all our stressors at once is unrealistic and it does take time to develop healthier habits that help combat stress. For starters take slower deeper breaths. Breathing techniques can lower blood pressure, increase oxygen levels and initiate a relaxation response..

Make a routine before bed and try to get into bed within a specific time frame. Do not watch TV or stay up surfing the internet at this time. Read a book of inspiration or think of something positive that happened that day. Be more appreciative of what you have and not focus on the negatives.

Exercise by going for a walk, light aerobic exercise. Enroll in a yoga or Tai Chi class. Stretch in the morning or go for a small run. Build yourself up daily. Talk to a friend or family member about your challenges and stressors. Seek professional counseling or other help. Talk to your minister, priest or other spiritual leader.

Talking helps to release some of the frustrations and receiving good advice on how to handle these situations should be welcomed. You also begin to realize that you are not alone in your frustrations. Get a massage, facial, or get foot reflexology. Get a chiropractic adjustment to alleviate your aches, pains and muscular imbalances.

Reading books about stress management. Being more assertive, getting a better division of labor at home and work. Enjoy a sunset or a warm cup of tea or coffee.