What Happens When We’re Chronically Stressed?

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When a seemingly great job started to turn sour earlier this year, I found myself in a state of constant stress. I knew I was struggling – the dread of going to work, the tightness in my chest, butterflies in my stomach but I didn’t realise just how chronic my stress had become. It wasn’t until I’d left and the harmful effects of stress started to rectify themselves, that I truly started to understand just how much of an impact the negative work environment had on me.

I have my yoga teacher training course largely to thank for that. We spent an entire weekend discussing stress, hormones and how it affect us physically – it’s considered such an important aspect of the training. Hopefully, if I can share what I’ve learned and experienced, you can take away a few ideas on noticing your own stress signals and how to lessen the effects.

What exactly is stress?

There are in fact, many different types of stress:

  • Nutritional: a poor diet stresses our digestive system
  • Chemical: breathing in particles from harsh cleaning products, applying antiperspirants and make up to our skin etc.
  • Electromagnetic: low frequency electromagnetic waves from household appliances
  • Physical: injuries and pain
  • Thermal: difficulty regulating body temperature e.g. constantly cold or excessive sweating
  • Mental/ emotional: this is the one we’re most familiar with and certainly the one I struggle with most often.

Just to confuse things even more, not all stress is bad! This was really interesting for me to learn. While we all long to live in a state of zero stress, it turns out that this is just as bad as being super stressed. We need to find a happy medium: if we have too much stress, we run ourselves down but if we’re completely stress-free then we never get anything done. The body becomes stagnant, there’s no growth, no drive. So instead of seeking to eliminate stress completely, we need to find balance.

What happens when we’re stressed?

We’ve all heard of fight or flight. This is the mechanism the brain uses when we’re stressed. The brain processes all forms of stress in the exact same way. Whether it’s a difficult meeting with your boss or a literal life or death situation, your brain will always treat it as the latter. As a result, the amount of adrenaline and cortisol (stress hormones) we produce is increased and blood flow is directed towards your limbs (to help you run from the perceived threat). 

Producing more stress hormones and redirecting blood flow, means ‘non-essential’ functions (in a life or death scenario) are compromised: digestion, sleep and fertility. It’s no surprise then that these are the main systems that are upset when we’re in a state of long term stress. 

When stress becomes chronic

Short term stress can be good for us. That rush of adrenaline helps us perform well in an exam or take on extreme challenges we wouldn’t think possible like sky diving and bungee jumping. It’s when stress becomes ongoing that it has damaging effects on the body. Symptoms we experience during bouts of short term stress become something much more chronic when we remain in a stressed state over months and years.

While cortisol is an essential hormone for helping us function – giving us the drive, the energy to try new things and get out of bed in the morning, too much of it over a long period can lead to the development of chronic conditions like those listed below.

Short term stress symptoms
  • Indigestion
  • Low energy
  • Diarrhoea/ constipation
  • Low immunity
  • Poor injury recovery
  • Excessive sweating 
Long term stress symptoms
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Adrenal fatigue
  • Infertility
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Accelerated ageing

How to deal with chronic stress?

It can be easy to panic and well, feel stressed about the effects of stress. There are many ways that we can help to calm our body and mind back down.

When I was in my stressful workplace, my IBS was worse than ever, my hormones were all over the place and I was exhausted. I’d been referred to specialists for my diet and hormone imbalance.

My dietitian encouraged me to try the elimination diet to see if particular foods were causing my IBS. My symptoms didn’t get any easier during the initial stages of eliminating all known trigger foods, however. I had ultrasounds, a CT scan and bloodwork to get to the bottom of what was happening with my hormones. All came back clear. What both specialists suggested was that ultimately, my symptoms were down to stress. Amazingly, after leaving my job, my hormones were back to normal within a few weeks. I couldn’t believe it. For a moment, I was angry that I’d allowed a job to have that much of an affect on me. Now I see it as a blessing in a way, that I know just what changes to look for to tell when my stress levels are getting out of hand.

Controlled breathing

A really interesting technique my yoga course has taught me is the importance of breathing. Yoga is a great way to help manage stress levels – the whole concept of the practice is to hold difficult poses while keeping the breath calm and steady i.e. teaching us to be calm when under stress! By paying close attention to our breathing, and inhaling right down into the tummy, not just the chest, we stimulate the yin energy that helps to keep us calm and relaxed. Give ‘box breathing’ a try: inhale for the count of four, hold for four, exhale for four, hold for four and so on. It reminds us to breathe deeply and mindfully, slows the heart rate and stops our minds racing.

Gentle exercise

I know when I’ve had a bad day and I’m feeling angry or frustrated, I just want to get that anger out. I always thought that by hitting the treadmill or heading to intense gym classes like my beloved BodyPump™, I was channelling that energy effectively. According to the teachers on my yoga course, that’s not the case! I’d never even thought that high impact exercises cause a spike in cortisol levels – the very hormone we need to reduce when chronically stressed. When you consider it, it makes perfect sense.

In order to help our bodies recover from their stressed state, it’s better to opt for low impact exercises like walking, yoga, pilates or tai chi. The last three especially, with their emphasis on working with the breath, are a huge help in regulating cortisol levels. So, now when I’m stressed I try to steer myself towards the yoga mat and away from the treadmill.

Chemical & electromagnetic stress

As for managing some of the other types of stress, there are a few things we can do. Being more aware of what’s in the products we’re buying and food we’re eating is a good start. A rule I go by, is if there’s anything you can’t pronounce on the ingredients list, don’t buy it! There’s been a surge in eco-friendly cleaning products in recent years, which offer a gentler way to keep our homes spic and span. Again, apply the same approach to skincare products, make up, shampoo and the like. Minimising the chemicals we breathe in or apply to our skin can help reduce the stress our bodies are under.

For electromagnetic stress, there are a number of tools out there to minimise electromagnetic waves. I’m still yet to try out any for myself but I’m most familiar with crystal therapy to protect against and neutralise electromagnetic pollution.

Staying mindful

I have to say, the effects of stress has been one of the most interesting aspects of my yoga teacher training. When I signed up to the course in January, I had no idea that I’d be learning about anything like this. It’s been a real eye opener and hugely beneficial in helping me feel more connected to what’s going on with my mind and body – I hope it means I can better manage ongoing stressful situations in the future. And I really hope, this information has helped you too.

A huge credit to Ian Davis and Karen Maidment, the teachers on my yoga course who have taught me all I know about stress and hormones. 

 

 

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