What is the Stress Response?
Try to think of your greatest source of stress. For many, a demanding job, financial woes or a family/social conflict immediately come to mind. However, hidden stressors like poor diet, lack of sleep or exercise, and even excessive screen time can be just as detrimental to your health.
To understand how stress affects us, we should first note that “stress” is not inherently a bad thing. It merely nudges (or shoves!) us out of balance, forcing us to re-establish a comfortable state. Just as we strive for work-life balance to feel at ease, our bodies are constantly seeking a similar balance in order to function optimally.
The classic example of the stress response involves a zebra running from a lion in the jungle. The zebra sees a threat (the lion), he runs from it (because he chooses to flee instead of fight since he knows the lion will likely win the battle), and then assuming he escapes, he eats some grass and then has a nap (because he was hungry and tired from the stress of almost losing his life). The zebra’s response is a normal response to stress. Because our stress is often chronic and not just every now and then, it’s important to understand its impact on the body.
When your body is under stress (whether from a tight deadline or a deer running in front of your car), it reacts as if your life were at risk, responding with the ‘stress response’ (aka “fight or flight response”), which is defined as “a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival”. The reaction to the stress starts in the brain, which immediately releases hormones (adrenaline, cortisol) that cause a number of reactions in the body in an effort to help you survive. Reproductive, immune and repair functions are halted because they are nor priorities in the moment. And as your body quickly prepares to fight or flee, a few other things happen: your pupils dilate (so you can see your threat clearer), various tissues are broken down into glucose, increasing blood sugar levels (so your body has energy to fight or flee), and your heart pounds and blood pressure increases (to send oxygen and blood to your muscles so you can fight or flee from your threat). But just like when you get nervous or angry and your heart rate and blood pressure go up, this intensity on the walls of the vessels can result in disease. The added pressure of the blood puts added force on the artery walls. Over time, the arteries can become damaged from the force, and eventually narrow because of the cholesterol that is trying to heal the tears on the overworked vessels. The resulting narrowed artery limits the flow of blood to the heart and the end result is that the heart is deprived of oxygen.
To appreciate what stress is doing to your insides, it’s important to understand your body’s reactions when you perceive or encounter a stress. During stress, your body focuses its energy on the processes it deems most essential at the moment. Your brain triggers the release of stress hormones such as cortisol, that cause your heart to pound, your breathing rate to increase, your blood vessels to constrict, and increase blood pressure to supply your muscles with the oxygen needed to “fight or flee” from your perceived threat. In addition, various tissues including muscle and bone break down into glucose to provide a burst of energy. Less immediate processes (such as digestion, reproduction, and immune function) are put on the back burner.
Chronic stress can contribute to the following hormonal imbalances:
- Decreased testosterone (sex drive, muscle mass)
- Increased estrogen (breast/ovarian cysts, PMS)
- Decreased progesterone (menstruation, fertility)
- Increased thyroid stimulating hormone (metabolism, weight)
- Decreased DHEA (anti-aging)
- Decreased GH, growth hormone (bone, muscle, metabolism)
- Decreased insulin (blood sugar)
- Decreased calcitonin (calcium levels)
- Alterations in brain chemistry involving dopamine and serotonin (depression, anxiety, memory, concentration)
- Compromised digestion
- Compromised reproduction
- Weakened immunity
- Reduced ability to repair
- and more…
In the short term, this stress response can work to your advantage. It can help you focus, meet deadlines and in the case of the zebra, it saved his life. But if you’re dealing with stress every single day (which most of us are since we’re overexposed to screens, emails, caffeine and deadlines), it means hormones are constantly flooding your body, throwing your blood sugar out of whack, lowering your immune system, lead to hormone imbalance, adrenal fatigue, thyroid imbalance, muscle loss, weight gain, deficiencies in vitamins and minerals, and ultimately leaving your body susceptible to a host of diseases.
Studies have shown that up to 95% of disease is stress related, and can manifest in ways that many don’t consider – from headaches to eczema to digestive issues to joint paint to cancer.
The underlying goal of our Private Coaching Programs, The 8 Weeks to Awesome Wellness Challenge, and our Workplace Wellness Programs is to reduce stress on your cells (in your body and brain) by addressing factors like diet, hydration, sleep, exercise, negative mindset, poor breathing, excessive screen time, etc, so that ultimately the overall stress is reduced on your body systems (organs, tissues, cells). When this stress load is reduced, your body has less work to do, giving it an opportunity to function at its best.