Everyone faces threats to their status quo from time to time. Sometimes, these changes appear to demand more from a person than the resources that the person thinks are available to him or her. The person must be able to adapt to the new situation in order to survive. This is the basic definition of dealing with stress.
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Stress can come in a variety of ways, both on an individual and a societal level.
On an individual level, this can include things like job stress, marital stress, living in unsafe neighborhoods, exams, etc. We respond to the same stressors in different ways and the same stressors would also affect us in different ways. These would depend largely on age, genetics, constitutional factors, the environment and learned coping behaviors.
If it is just an acute one-off episode, the body responds with a predictable cascade of events involving the neurological, cardiovascular, immune and endocrine systems. This is your typical sweating, heart racing, butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling, etc. Stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are released and all non-essential activities are put on hold for the moment. Things like digesting, sexual activity and growth take a back seat.
But, when this type of stress reaction happens over and over and over again, the body's adaptive mechanisms can become faulty due to constant activation.
Imagine if you never turned off your phone or gave it a chance to recharge, eventually the battery would die or the phone would not run as smoothly. It's the same with the body. Heightened responses in blood pressure and heart rate can take its toll in the long run and the person may end up with heart disease. The immune system shuts down and the person is left vulnerable to infections and cancer. This is also an issue for people that do not manage their anxiety and perception of threats (tips on anxiety management here).
Numerous studies have documented the effects different stressors have on children. Chronic exposure to intense stress during childhood has long-lasting biological effects and puts the person at increased risk for anxiety, mood disorders and medical problems in adulthood. This same pattern holds true in adults. It is well known, for instance, that a major negative stressor like divorce, unemployment, abuse or being diagnosed with an illness normally triggers clinical depression.
Social support in times of stress is exceptionally important in moderating the effects that stress can have on our well-being.
Without it, the same stressor is interpreted at a higher level and leads to exaggerated physical damage to the body. This is why it is incredibly important to identify and deal with stress before they trigger more long-term consequences. The best forms of social support are different for everyone. It may be a parent, a friend, a co-worker or a mental health professional. It doesn't really matter which form you prefer as long as you have one.
Admittedly stress can sometimes be positive. It pushes you to excel and compete. But most of the time, like when you are sitting in a traffic jam, dealing with critical people or trying to figure out unclear directions you were given at work, and when we have an unhealthy work-life balance, stress is just useless and a negative force in our lives. It may initially seem trivial but small stressors can pile up very quickly. It can cause you to be tired and irritable. It can worsen existing medical conditions or lead to alcoholism. Some people may not realize the damage that carrying around these feelings have caused them until a major illness strikes.
Stress and both our physical and mental health are inextricably linked. Good mental health means good physical health and vice versa. Therefore, managing stress, in combination with physical activity and nutrition, should be a crucial point to consider when wanting to improve our overall health.
This guest post is written by Ireland-base Dr. Denise Karlyn Hee, a medical doctor practicing nutrigenomic medicine and certified integrative nutrition health coach. If you’d like to find out more about this topic or consult with Dr. Denise, feel free to message her via her RingMD profile (profile here).
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