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Stress 101

Let’s talk stress. We are all familiar with the term. It’s an inevitable part of living in this world.

Not all stress is bad. Stress can be divided into two categories. Eustress is a positive type of stress, and distress is a negative type of stress. An example of eustress would be the stress that is involved in achieving a goal that is important to you. You are happy with the outcome, but the process produced stress. An example of distress would be the stress associated with losing a loved one, arguing with a co-worker, or experiencing a health problem. Distress is frequently triggered when a given situation feels out of our control.

When considering stress, it is important to differentiate between the stress and the stressor. The stressor is the person, event, or circumstance that is triggering the stress response. The stress response is the physiological process that occurs in your body when you perceive something as a stressor. Frequently, the stress response occurs before we have an opportunity to process the circumstance. The part of the brain called the amygdala houses emotional memories. The brain is always comparing the current circumstances to prior circumstances, and when the amygdala identifies a circumstance that previously elicited fear, anxiety, or worry, it will automatically trigger that same response.

The body reacts to stress via the nervous system and the hormonal system. The initial response occurs via the sympathetic nervous system. This is also called the “flight or fight” response, as the main threats early in our evolution required fleeing or fighting. Within a few minutes, the sympathetic nervous system initiates the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline. This results in a rapid heart rate, more blood delivery to the muscles, and faster breathing as the body prepares to run or fight.

Shortly after the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline, the adrenal gland releases the hormone, cortisol. Cortisol prepares the body to survive despite the stressor. Vigilance may increase, blood sugar levels rise to supply the muscles with fuel, and extra calories get stored as fat (this function evolved during periods when famines were not uncommon).

Stress that persists affects multiple systems in our body. It can worsen memory and cognition, weaken the immune system, result in high blood pressure and vascular disease, and disrupt thyroid function. Chronic stress can exacerbate the symptoms of perimenopause and reduce testosterone levels. Chronic stress takes its toll on the GI system and can also contribute to muscle breakdown and bone loss. Failed weight loss attempts may also be a consequence.

While stress is most often felt as anxiety, worry, or fear, there are times when high cortisol levels can be associated with sadness, apathy, or depression. In this case, the parasympathetic nervous system, the relaxation state (instead of the sympathetic nervous system) predominates. The negative effects of cortisol can still be seen. An example would be disliking a job, and/or having co-workers or a boss that cause frustration. If circumstances prevent leaving the job, one may cope by turning the anger and frustration into apathy, just going through the motions without any emotion or interest. It may feel healthier to not feel the intense anger daily, but the elevated cortisol will still be taking a toll on the body.

Given that stress is inevitable, it is important that we all learn how to cope with it in a healthy manner. Our long-term health depends on it. Fortunately, there are multiple methods that are effective, allowing an individual to choose a few that work best for them and their lifestyle. This is just one of the areas that will be addressed in your individualized Lifestyle Medicine program. Schedule your initial assessment today, or e-mail or call (507)242-8746 to learn more.

November 2, 2020


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