Do you feel like you’re drowning in a bottomless sea of deadlines, expectations, and long to-do lists? Are low energy and fatigue common complaints? And are you susceptible to negative moods including irritability or frustration under stress?
You should know that what you think will be the gratifying promise of energy from that mid-afternoon candy bar or third cup of coffee is really only a temporary solution to lagging energy or low mood.
Over time, excess caffeine and sugar-laden snacks coupled with stress and a sedentary lifestyle brew up the perfect storm, resulting in a cycle of fatigue, nutrient imbalances, and poor stress response.
Stress can be good
Stress affects everyone and is an inescapable part of life. The susceptibility to stress varies from person to person, as does the response to stress. Short bursts of stress to overcome lethargy or to enhance performance constitute a positive and healthy stress response.
Hans Selye, one of the pioneers of the modern study of stress, referred to this as “eustress,” describing it as a positive force to enhance adaptation mechanisms to stress, as well as to alert the body to make necessary lifestyle changes. This action-stimulating stress gives a hockey player the competitive edge or enables a singer to project enthusiastically, creating a sense of mastery and accomplishment.
Stress can be bad
On the flip side, stress is perceived as a negative experience when it fatigues the body, causes behavioural and physical problems, and contributes to chronic disease. This state of “distress” can produce overreaction, confusion, poor concentration, and anxiety. Neurons in the brain generally “talk” to each other, but during sustained stress over time, these neuronal processes are halted, affecting memory, ability to learn, and the stress response.
Physiologically, human beings are designed to respond to short-term emergencies. The “fight or flight” response initiated by the adrenal glands mobilizes adrenalin and cortisol to release blood sugar and increases blood pressure and heart rate for better oxygen perfusion to the muscles.
Once the crisis is over, the body activates immune responses and calming neurotransmitters to recover from the stress. Harmful effects occur when the stress response system remains in the “on position” chronically, leading to a host of stress-related diseases. Traffic jams, marital strife, financial woes, and other stressors can create an imbalance in homeostasis, the state in which the body maintains a particular balanced physiology.
Interestingly, for cognitively sophisticated humans, the stress-response can also be activated simply by thinking about a stressful situation. Based purely on anticipation, it’s possible to turn on a stress response as robust as if the event had actually occurred! Anticipatory stress can result in anxiety, paranoia, and even depression.
Understanding the physiology of ongoing stress
When stress is prolonged, the adrenal glands eventually become exhausted and depleted, and adrenal fatigue results. The excess cortisol that is released strains body parts and weakens the immune system, which can then cause blood sugar imbalances, insulin resistance, mood and sleep disturbances, chronic fatigue, high blood pressure, diabetes, frequent colds or infection, and weight gain.
Ongoing or excessive stress responses can eventually manifest as autoimmune disease, peptic ulcers, cardiovascular disease, or even cancer.
Workplace stress: increasing global concern
This physiological model of stress holds true in the modern workplace, where multiple pressures to perform, economic upheaval, layoffs, downsizing, pay cuts, and increased workloads along with job dissatisfaction or lack of support are all major sources of stress.
Work-related stress is defined by the World Health Organization as “the response people may have when presented with work demands and pressures that are not matched to their knowledge and abilities, and which challenge their ability to cope.”
In Canada, 62 percent of highly stressed workers identify work as their main source of stress. This growing concern is also reflected globally; Japan and China, where long working hours are expected, each have a word for death by overwork: karoshi and guolaosi, respectively.
Learning to adapt to stress
Developing the ability to predict stressors and build self-control by using effective communication, considered a form of emotional intelligence, minimizes stress. Emotional support through leisure time and social connections can also counteract some of the negative effects of stress.
Natural substances known as adaptogens, used for centuries in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine to promote a sense of well-being by regulating the adrenal stress response, may help reduce the intensity and negative impacts of stress.
Ashwagandha is an anti-inflammatory and calming tonic that is believed to protect against oxidative stress and prevent premature aging.
Rhodiola is an antianxiety adaptogen that is taken to help boost the immune system and improve mental and physical stamina.
Holy basil (or tulsi) may help promote longevity, relieve fatigue, and elevate mood.
Shatavari is referred to as the queen of herbs because of its traditional use for rejuvenating female hormonal health and normalizing sleep disturbances and insulin secretion.
Simple lifestyle strategies
Focus on these lifestyle factors to help boost resilience, well-being, and balance between work and family or personal life.
Eleuthero is used as a performance and focus enhancer to increase mental alertness and concentration.
Exercise increases endorphins (feel-good neurotransmitters) and helps shed daily tensions.
Good quality sleep helps improve mood and reduce stress.
Mindfulness practices such as meditation can restore calm and peace even after just a few minutes.
Spending time in nature helps buffer against stress and correlates with higher rates of happiness and cognitive performance.
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