In our lives, most of us deal with stress at one point or another. You feel like there's a huge burden in your chest, your energy levels decrease, your muscles feel weak and even your stomach starts to act up to cause nausea, diarrhoea or constipation. Stress can occur due to lack of sleep, rocky relationships, an exhausting work schedule, insufficient rest, a hectic lifestyle and basically from anything that pressurises you.
Stress, in fact, is a physiological response to a certain stressor such as an environmental condition. It is the body’s way of reacting to threats, challenges, difficult situations or any other physical or psychological barriers. When left unresolved, it can lead to more serious problems. For example, reports show that depression rates in Malaysia are increasing as people are burning out from stress. Complicated processes take place in the body before you feel signs of stress and they are associated with a primary stress hormone called cortisol.
Cortisol creates and elevates symptoms that make you feel stressed out. Fluctuating levels of this hormone makes it difficult to be measured. This is why scientists and physicians are developing other ways to measure cortisol such as by analysing its concentration in hair. At this point, the best way to measure stress is through a medical consult or a physical exam. A doctor or psychologist could help assess your stress levels and advise you on how to cope with it.
Cortisol, adrenaline and stress
As mentioned above, the stress response is a complicated process which starts in the brain. During a stressful situation, amygdala, a part of the brain that participates in emotional processing, sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus, which communicates with the rest of the body through the autonomic nervous system.
Then, the hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system by sending signals through autonomic nerves to adrenal glands. These glands pump adrenaline into the bloodstream as a response. While adrenaline circulates around the body, the body responses by increasing the heartbeat and breathing and intensifying senses such as sight and hearing. At the same time, adrenaline triggers the release of glucose and fats from their storage organs, which will then supply different parts of the body with energy.
The hypothalamus will also activate the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis which in turn activates a series of hormonal signals. When the brain continues to perceive stress, the hypothalamus will release corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH) which leads to the release of cortisol.
Physiological effects of elevated cortisol
Elevated cortisol levels can wreak havoc on our health and wellbeing. Waiting for stress to subside on its own is never a good idea. When left unresolved, stress (i.e., elevated cortisol) and its effects can only get worse. Some physiological effects associated with elevated cortisol include:
- Suppressed digestive system
- Weakened immune system
- Suppressed reproductive system (fertility issues)
- Weight gain
- Imbalance of blood sugar and diabetes
- Cardiovascular problems
- Thyroid disorders
Long-term benefits of reducing cortisol
High cortisol levels can affect your quality of life, but thankfully there’s a lot you can do to reduce them. Stress management comes with a plethora of benefits such as:
- Energy Boost
- Improved mood
- Weight management
- Improves sleep
- Better blood sugar control
- Improved function of the digestive system
- Sharper memory
- Better focus and concentration
- Improved alertness and attention
- Clearer skin
- Improved regulation of blood pressure
- Stronger immune system
- Healthier lifestyle
How persistent elevation of stress hormones harms our health
Persistent elevation of stress hormones causes a domino effect where different consequences occur one after another thus only emphasizing the severity of stress. These harmful effects include high blood pressure, increased risk of heart disease, shortness of breath, higher blood glucose levels, heartburn, tense muscles, erectile dysfunction and irregular periods.
As seen in this post, stress has a significant impact on our physical and mental health. Instead of ignoring it, we need to be proactive and manage stress for a healthier and happier life. Stress management does not have to be difficult. Here are five golden rules to follow:
- Exercise – regular physical activity helps eliminate anxiety and stress. Low-intensity exercise has the potential to reduce cortisol levels. It’s a great way to get rid of frustrations and feel calmer right after.
- Deep breathing – instant stress relief when you feel pressured, frustrated or anxious. Just take a few deep breaths slowly. Pay attention to every deep breath as you inhale and exhale. You will automatically feel better.
- Eat well – avoid sugary, fattening and heavily processed foods. Instead, modify your diet to include an abundance of fruits and vegetables. Some foods can balance your emotional response and regular blood sugar levels, both of which are important for stress management. These include green leafy vegetables, turkey breast, oatmeal, yogurt, salmon, berries, dark chocolate and avocado.
- Make time for yourself – a great source of stress is a hectic lifestyle and a lack of me-time. Busy schedules often make us think that we don’t have enough time to relax, but that’s not entirely true. It all comes down to how you organize your day. When planning your activities, commitments and responsibilities for the upcoming day or week, always leave enough time for a breather.
- Eliminate your stress triggers – a useful stress management technique. Identify situations that stress you out and try your best to minimize your exposure to them.