The kids are home from school. Traveling to visit family begins to become the norm. Everyone loves dealing with the endless battling at the stores for presents (not!!). Flu season kicks into full swing. High-sugar and ultra-processed foods are staples at every event. The holiday season is a time of great joy, but also (and in many cases) they can become a time of great stress.
Stress seems to be a popular topic these days. Popular enough to warrant a blog post from me, in fact. Especially when an estimated 60-80% of primary care visits may have a stress-related component (1). That tells me that this issue is something we need to approach more proactively and less reactively. So, let’s dive into this topic and begin to explore everything dealing with stress. This will be the first in a three-part post series discussing how stress works within our bodies, the impact of stress on health and well-being, and what strategies to use so we can limit those negative effects.
What Is Stress?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, stress is how the brain and body respond to any demand. Notice the phrasing of that definition: any. When most people think of stress, they often just refer to the mental and emotional aspects of stress. Typically, those dealing with anxiety and depression.
But stress (and its impact) goes well beyond anxiety and depression. Let’s rewind to that definition again: any demand. There are countless stressors that we encounter day to day. Just a few examples include family and social stress (mental/emotional), blood sugar imbalances (metabolic), illness (immune), major acute stress (traumatic), and exercise and injury (physical). These stressors may be short-term, one-time occurrences, or they may be continuous, long-term events.
The Good and Bad
Some stressors are good (called eustress) and others are bad (distress). We typically think of stress as harmful. Whether it’s stress from deadlines at work or in-fighting with family, we tend to attach negativity to stress. And that’s certainly warranted. Most of the common stressors we think about in society are associated with negative stress. This type of stress creates anxiety, feels unpleasant, decreases performance, and typically leads to mental and physical problems.
But there’s also a positive side to stress. Eustress helps to build us up. It tends to be motivating and focusing, usually increasing performance and well-being. But it can also be life-saving. Our fight-or-flight response (sympathetic nervous system) is a beneficial type of stress. We want this system working well if we experience danger and need our bodies to appropriately handle the situation.
We all recognize it’s impossible to avoid stress. Even thinking about stress can create stress. Our world is full of experiences and instances waiting to create stress within us. So how do we handle this? Adaptation.
Since daily stress is unavoidable, our body’s only choice is to adapt to it. Most of us can handle large amounts of stress. Our body knows how to correctly respond to incoming stress and deal with it accordingly…until it doesn’t. When your body mounts a small stress response to a single, small stressor then job well done. The same goes for a large stress response for a large stressor. But what happens when multiple small stressors all hit at once and continue to do so?
Put simply, your body starts treating every stressor as a major event. It starts sprinting toward the finish line when walking would’ve had the same outcome. And like sprinting versus walking, your body will run through energy at a much higher pace. Have you ever felt tired after a stressful event?
Loss of adaptation with the stress response has been associated with numerous health conditions, including:
-Cardiovascular Disease (3)
So, it seems like being able to accurately and readily adapt to stress would be ideal. Before we can look at how to reverse that exaggerated response, we must see how it happens in the first place.
In the next post, we’ll discuss the inner workings of the stress systems and how they integrate with the rest of our metabolism. We’ll also cover the main outside influence that cause an exaggerated stress response.