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Understanding Stress

Stress is unavoidable…or is it?

Ever wonder how some people just seem to handle stress better than others? Perhaps you, the reader, are feeling exceptionally stressed lately and are looking for a solution. In my practice I come across a large number of individuals who are dealing with stress in one way or another. I don’t only aim to provide solutions to that stress, but also to provide education. Learning about a condition can help one gain empowerment over it. Lets take a look at STRESS, shall we?

Stress is loosely defined as pressure or tension placed upon an object. However, when it comes to our life, that “object” is our body. When someone expresses that they feel stressed, they are often going through some emotional or mental strain from a variety of sources or circumstances, be it from worry over finances, work, a health scare, familial disputes, or even chronic pain.

Stress is not necessarily a bad thing all the time, however. When faced with a dangerous or exhilarating situation, moderate stress levels can heighten our mental focus and regulate the release of stress hormones—“epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol”— to divert more blood to our muscles and help ready the body for the “fight or flight” response. Ever wonder why you sometimes work more efficiently under pressure? You can thank a specific network of structures in your body called the “hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis” (HPA axis) that, among other things, regulates your stress response. This network starts in your brain where the first stimulus of stress is detected and processed. It then signals the release of a set of hormones that act on your adrenal glands to eventually release stress hormones. These hormones then effect various structures in your body including, but not limited to, your blood vessels, immune system, liver, and GI tract.

But what if your body is stressed chronically?

Chronic stress can manifest into irritability, anxiety, insomnia, or depression, or even lead to unwanted coping behaviors such as overeating or substance abuse. In addition, given that the HPA axis plays a role in the regulation of many bodily functions, chronic stress can have a wide array of health effects including fatigue, high blood pressure, headaches, poor digestion, weight gain, heartburn, abnormalities in sugar control, and even weakening of your immune system.

TED-ed released easy to understand educational videos on stress, highlighting this issue. Above are two quick videos: 'How Chronic Stress Affects Your Brain' and 'How Stress Affects Your Body' by Sharon Horesh Bergquist which gives us a look at what goes on inside our body when we are chronically stressed.

It is worth noting that there are effective ways to curb your stress by indirectly strengthening your response to stress. While some seek relief with the use of medications to help reduce the behavioral effects of stress (i.e. anxiety), there is a growing body of research supporting the use of yoga, medication, and cognitive behavioral therapy to get a better handle on stressful situations when they arise. It’s hard work, but the pay-off is priceless!

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