Chronic Stress - Is this the New Normal?

meditation morning practice phoenix rising yoga therapy real food resilience sugarfree Aug 01, 2021

STRESS. You can’t avoid it these days - it literally surrounds us in everyday life and virtually no one is immune to it. However, a little bit of stress is actually a good thing!  It keeps us, and our neurological systems, on our toes. 

And the Buddha believed that being stressed, uncomfortable or unhappy with one’s existence (sometimes referred to as suffering) was a natural part of life, albeit something that could be reduced through various practices.

But, while short-lived stress is generally harmless, and sometimes even helpful (think of a motivating adrenaline rush!), it’s when it persists and becomes chronic that it can really start to create havoc in our lives - and in our health - mind, body and spirit.

Chronic stress can cause a range of concerning symptoms, and not just the psychological ones we often associate it with. It can also contribute to the development of a multitude of physical and mental disorders -- it truly is a full-body response!

In fact, chronic stress has become so stealthy at infiltrating every part of our lives that health professionals have dubbed a new illness for a new era… Chronic Stress - the health epidemic of the 21st century. 

Today I will cover more about the far-reaching health effects of stress, how to recognize the signs & symptoms and what you can do to manage them - and better yet, to prevent chronic stress from taking over your life in the first place! 

I’ve also got an easy DIY essential oil blend for those times when you’re feeling over-scheduled - like you probably do everyday ;)

What Does Chronic Stress Feel Like?

First, we must understand what the natural (normal) stress response feels like:  We encounter a perceived threat - whether that’s real or imagined, physical, mental or emotional

  • The Hypothalamus, a tiny region at the base of your brain, kicks into gear and sets off the alarm system in your body, and releases a hormone, “waking up” the Pituitary Gland
  • Via nerve and hormonal signals (sent as a result of the alarm system), the Adrenal Glands are prompted to release stress hormones, including Adrenaline and Cortisol
    • Adrenaline increases heart rate, elevates blood pressure and pumps up energy reserves
    • Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases glucose in the bloodstream, enhances the brain's use of glucose and bolsters tissue repair function
    • Cortisol also downgrades nonessential functions that would take up precious resources needed during the fight-or-flight response. For example, the immune system, digestive system, reproductive system and growth processes are all put on the backburner.
  • When the perceived threat has passed, hormone levels return to normal. For example, as stress hormone levels drop, heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels, and other body systems resume their regular activities too.

But, what happens when the normal stress response goes into overdrive?

Even though a lion isn’t chasing you across the grassy plains anymore, you probably have a seemingly continuous accumulation of different types of stress - from your private life, professional life and everywhere in between. 

This includes overeating, toxic relationships, and information + digital overload!

Long-term activation of your stress-response system (as if your natural fight or flight reaction switch stays in the ‘on’ position), coupled with the overexposure to stress hormones like Cortisol can disrupt nearly all your body's complex systems and processes.

This natural and survival Stress Response is meant to be an occasional thing – not turned on all day, every day as happens in our modern-day, western culture.  This overtaxes and stresses our bodies, leaving us “tired and wired”.

The health problems associated with chronic stress:

  • Anxiety, depression and other mental health issues, including phobias, bipolar disorder & schizophrenia
  • Mood changes and easy to anger
  • Digestive issues like diarrhea and constipation
  • Appetite changes - increased or decreased
  • Weight gain and obesity
  • Headaches and chronic body pain
  • Rapid heartbeat and palpitations
  • Increased risk for hypertension, heart attack, heart disease & stroke
  • Lower immunity and frequent sickness
  • Contributes to premature aging
  • Lowered libido, increased sexual dysfunction
  • Hormone imbalances (closely associated with Adrenal Dysfunction) and fertility issues
  • Sleep problems and insomnia
  • Decreased energy and fatigue
  • Memory impairment and difficulty concentrating
  • Skin issues like acne, eczema, hives and psoriasis
  • Excessive sweating
  • Can contribute to, and exacerbate addictions (and addictive behaviour) 

And so many, many more possible symptoms - which is why it is now being referred to as the “health epidemic of the 21st century”.

Becoming Resilient 

Chronic stress can become very overwhelming, especially due to that feeling of being constantly under a full-body & mind attack!  However, there are a number of ways you can reduce stress levels and improve the uncomfortable symptoms you might be experiencing.

Resilience is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties including stressful events.  It’s knowing how to cope in spite of setbacks or barriers - Advancing Despite Adversity.

To continue living out our life’s purpose (dharma) is a sign of Resilience.  And in some cases to even use those setbacks as the fuel to fire up our actions!

True Resilience fosters well-being and an underlying sense of happiness, love and peace.  As you internalize experiences of well-being, that builds inner strengths, which in turn makes you more resilient!  Well-being and Resilience promote each other in an upward spiral.  The key is turning passing experiences into lasting inner resources by changing your brain, a process called Neuroplasticity!  How? Through repetition of the healthy habits and practices that we want to incorporate into our lives!

Becoming Resilient to Manage Stress and Prevent Chronic Stress Syndrome:

  1. Learn to recognize the signs & symptoms. They can vary from person to person, but if one can recognize their own signs of too much stress, they’ll be better equipped to manage them.
  2. Identify and then avoid your personal stress triggers, when possible. Taking note of your own specific triggers can help you to develop personalized coping and management strategies. Reducing exposure to them is going to be key in prevention though.
  3. Improve your sleep. Getting too little sleep or poor quality sleep can significantly contribute to stress load. Generally, avoiding caffeine, eating too much, intense exercise and devices (!!) before bed is sound advice.
  4. Eat a healthy diet, including limiting caffeine, alcohol and excessive sugar intake which can all stress the nervous system.
  5. Exercise regularly to increase the body's production of endorphins - chemicals that boost mood and reduce stress. You could try walking, cycling, running, circuit training, a HIIT workout, or playing sports. You just need to move your body, work up a sweat and do something that you actually enjoy.
  6. Practice relaxation techniques such as yoga, deep breathing, alternate nostril breathing, massage therapy or other type of hands-on “touch therapy”.
  7. Mindfulness has been shown to have a positive impact on reducing stress, anxiety, and depression.
  8. Take time for hobbies, such as reading, listening to music or volunteering in your community.
  9. Fostering positive relationships (and ditching the toxic ones) and try to have a good belly laugh more often!
  10. Connect, seek support and talk it out - with friends & family, as well as professional counselling if needed. 

With the very real risk of being affected by chronic stress, it’s increasingly more important to pay close attention to how you deal with both minor and major stress events, and be able to tune into and recognize the signs & symptoms of chronic stress -- so that you know how and when to seek help.

Of course, as a Certified Yoga Therapist and Registered Yoga Teacher, my “go-to” strategies include Yoga, Meditation, Breathwork and other Self-Care Practices.

Breathwork: Your breath is one of the most powerful tools you have for releasing resistance, bypassing mental chatter, and restoring equilibrium at times when your anxiety increases. This is a technique that can be practised anywhere, and most people around you will not even know!  It’s simple: Take 3 deep breaths!

  • Inhale – Take a long, deep, and full Belly Breath
  • Exhale – even longer and slower (activates the Parasympathetic Nervous System)
  • Repeat a few times, at least 3

Meditation is about sitting in silence with yourself, releasing the outside distractions of the day and your life.  There are many styles of meditation:  one I like is to focus on an anchor to help release any other distractions and deepen the connection to inner awareness.  The focus can be a mantra such as an affirmation, a flame such as a candle, or noticing your breath.

  • Know that your attention may still wander, do your best to bring it back to your focus, without judgment.
  • One benefit of meditation is to stimulate the Vagus Nerve – to turn off “Fight or Flight” and turn on the Parasympathetic “Rest, Digest and Restore”. 
  • Remind yourself: There is nothing else you need to be doing right now.

Start a Daily Self-Care Practice

  • Self-care, self-love, self-support, or self-nurturing is one of the greatest investments you can make for your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health and wellbeing. 
  • Self-care isn’t about rewarding yourself at the end of a hard day or stressful week. It’s about engaging in something that is self-supportive and looks after your own needs first. 
  • Because when you nurture yourself, you’re better equipped to help others. 

Maintaining a regular yoga practice can provide physical and mental health benefits.  The physical benefits of yoga include increased flexibility, increased muscle strength and tone, improved respiration, energy and vitality, maintaining a balanced metabolism, and more!

  • Aside from the physical benefits, one of the best benefits of yoga is how it helps a person manage stress, which as we have seen can have devastating effects on the body and mind. 
  • And because there are so many different styles of yoga, it is accessible to everybody - and to every body.  The idea is to get in touch with your body and your inner awareness.
  • Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy uses age-old yogic and modern therapeutic approaches to deepen awareness and presence, to help you accept yourself more fully.  Out of this acceptance you are more easily moved to embrace the opportunity for change, growth and enhanced well-being in body, mind, emotions and spirit.

Again, when Stress persists and becomes chronic, it can really start to create havoc in our lives - and in our health.  But it is not inevitable.  We can all incorporate Resilience-Building practice into our daily lives, including Yoga, Meditation, Breathwork and other Self-Care Practices.  

BONUS:  Here’s a relaxing DIY essential oil blend for those times when you’ve scheduled one too many activities into your day:

Essential Oils for Stress Relief

Essential oils recommended to blend:

  • 12 drops of ylang-ylang - or jasmine
  • 10 drops of patchouli - or vetiver
  • 8 drops of lavender - or chamomile
  • 6 drops of cedarwood - or cypress
  • 4 drops of bergamot - or grapefruit

Preparation & uses: 

  • In a clean, dark glass bottle (to protect it from UV light), blend together ¼ cup carrier oil (jojoba or sweet almond oil work best) with 5 of the recommended essential oils.
  • Rub a few drops of the blend between your palms and breathe deeply for an immediate feeling of relief from stress and anxiety caused by stressful situations - like your too-busy schedule!
  • Or place a few drops on your temples and back of your neck, and rub gently.
  • If using for bath water, do not add carrier oil, and just add a few drops of the EO blend.

REFERENCES

Elsevier (SciTech Connect, April 2016) - Stress: the health epidemic of the 21st century

Greater Good Science Center (November 2016) -  Five Science-Backed Strategies to Build Resilience

Mayo Clinic (Stress Management, March 2019) - Chronic stress puts your health at risk

Medical News Today (October 2018) - What are the health effects of chronic stress?

Healthline (January 2018) - 11 signs & symptoms of too much stress

National Institute of Mental Health/National Institute of Health (NIMH/NIH) - 5 things you should know about stress

Study: Future Science Open Access (November 2015) - The effects of chronic stress on health: new insights into the molecular mechanisms of brain–body communication 

Study: Chronic Stress (Thousand Oaks, Calif., August 2017) - Chronic Pain and chronic stress - two sides of the same coin? 

Study: BMC Family Practice (March 2015) - Prevalence of perceived stress and associations to symptoms of exhaustion, depression and anxiety in a working age population seeking primary care - an observational study

For more info on this and other natural health topics:

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