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In today's times we find ourselves increasingly stressed and uncertain of what is to come. We see that little by little our performance decreases, we find it difficult to maintain our concentration, we suffer mood swings, and we notice that our energy is not the same as before. However, we have forgotten that stress plays an important role in human beings as a mechanism to ensure life and survival, and we blame it for all our ailments.

In this article you will find everything you need to know to understand what happens in your body and mind when you suffer from stress and what you can do to prevent and manage it successfully.

 

What is stress?

Stress is a natural or physiological reaction of the body in which various defense mechanisms come into play to cope with a situation that is perceived as threatening. It consists of a set of rapid reactions that are generated in the body to prepare it for action. It is the biological warning system necessary for survival.

When faced with a threat to your life or safety, in order to survive, your body responds with a number of adaptive changes involving the activation of the nervous and hormonal systems.

Once the stimulus stops, the body will return to its baseline state. The problem occurs when the stimulus does not stop, or the body remains in a state of alert for long periods.

 

The science behind stress

The stress response develops in 3 phases, depending on how long the trigger lasts. For example, if what is stressing you is a presentation to a large audience, you may only experience the first phase of alertness with acute activation of the nervous system. However, if the situation is prolonged over time, as in the case of losing a job or having a family member with a serious illness, your body will trigger the necessary changes to adapt, and you may reach the exhaustion phase, with the respective mental, emotional and physical consequences.

 

First, alert phase:

This phase corresponds to the "alarm", i.e. the activation of the sympathetic nervous system in its "fight or flight" mode. This response is extremely rapid, and the symptoms that occur are caused by the increase of noradrenaline in the blood. Some of these are:

  • Nervousness or restlessness
  • Anxiety
  • Palpitations
  • Agitated breathing
  • Digestive discomfort such as nausea, diarrhea, or abdominal pain

 

Second, phase of defense or resistance:

This phase corresponds to a hormonal activation that is slower than the previous one, but its effects are longer lasting. The changes that occur in your body are mainly due to the increase of cortisol in the blood, which has the function of maintaining stable levels of sugar in the blood to be used by your muscles, your heart and your brain, and thus be able to respond adequately to the stressful situation.

 

Third, stage of exhaustion:

This stage only appears if the threat persists over time, and the activation of the nervous system and the hormonal system remain active. After a while, the hormones become less effective in responding. The body becomes exhausted and signals slow down, until finally cortisol begins to decrease.

When this state occurs, the body's energy reserves are being used to react to negative stimuli, so the body becomes weaker and illnesses increase.

 

Symptoms of chronic stress

The body has physical, mental, and emotional signals that indicate when a person is going through a period of increased risk to mental and physical health.

Some common symptoms that can affect are as follows:

  • Headache
  • Sleeping problems such as insomnia or excessive sleepiness
  • Fatigue and tiredness
  • Diminished mood or depression
  • Anxiety states
  • Lack of concentration
  • Memory loss
  • High blood pressure
  • Constipation or chronic diarrhea
  • Decreased sexual desire
  • Dermatitis, skin rashes
  • Allergies

 

Vacations are over: the stress of returning to work

During the vacation period, we are happy, relaxed, and spend part of our time on activities that recharge our energy. However, when this is over, we may quickly find ourselves back in stressful situations of work, studies and responsibilities.

While this is normal, keep in mind that a lifestyle that includes a nutritious diet, physical activity, healthy interpersonal relationships and new challenges will keep you in action and energetic enough to respond to change, reducing the risk of chronic stress and all its consequences.

Consider making a plan to organize your schedule and activities and ensure moments for self-care, as suggested in the following section.

 

Natural Solutions for Stress

Although there are situations that are beyond our control, here is a list of tools that you can implement in your daily life, which will allow you to keep your nervous system in balance, respond more calmly to challenging situations and prevent the consequences of chronic stress.

  • Organize your schedule: try to wake up and go to sleep at the same time every day.
  • Take care of your sleep: avoid activities that are very stimulating in the hours before bedtime, such as watching television, strenuous exercise or planning. You can take a warm bath, listen to relaxing music or write in your diary.
  • Do stretching or flexibility exercises. This will help relax your body and mind.
  • Go for a walk. It will clear your mind and allow you to think more clearly.
  • Spend time in nature.
  • Do 10 minutes of grounding: walk barefoot on grass, dirt or sand.
  • Drink more water and herbal teas.
  • Eat foods that make you feel better, such as fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains and seeds.
  • Avoid processed products or products with added sugars.
  • Avoid consuming stimulant foods such as coffee, black tea and chocolate in excess.
  • Avoid alcohol and cigarettes
  • Include activities that generate gratification: painting, drawing, riding a bicycle, playing an instrument, listening to your favorite music, reading a book, etc.
  • Practice a physical activity that you enjoy: keeping the body active helps to feel well and strengthen the body's response to any stressful situation.
  • Practice Yoga in the morning or before going to bed.
  • Practice 15 minutes of meditation
  • Take 5 minutes of slow, deep breaths.
  • Seek help. Seeking therapy can help you acquire psychological tools to cope with difficult periods in your life.

 

Breathing Exercise

There are many breathing techniques that promote relaxation. In this article you will learn one of them that you can use whenever you need it. You can use it before, during and after the stressful experience.

  • Step 1: Inhale through your nose for a count of 4.
  • Step 2: Hold your breath for a count of 4.
  • Step 3: Exhale through your nose for a count of 4.
  • Step 4: Hold your breath for a count of 4.
  • Repeat

With each of the steps imagine that you are drawing a square with 4 equal sides. As you inhale, hold, exhale and hold again, trace in your mind each of its sides, completing the square with each cycle. Practice this exercise for 5 minutes in the morning and evening, or as often as you feel necessary.

 

Nutrition to Improve Stress

In order for your body to respond to a stressful situation adequately and without triggering major imbalances, it is important that you maintain a balanced diet.

Nutritional deficiencies, especially of micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals, prevent your body from having enough energy and can worsen the damage of stress, altering your quality of life. 

Some of the key nutrients for an optimal response to stress, and proper recovery, are:

  • Vitamin D: maintains cognitive functions and strengthens the immune system.
  • Vitamins B6, B9 and B12: help preserve memory and nervous system communication.
  • Magnesium: regulates muscle health, protects the brain. Its lack can cause nervousness, mood swings and poor concentration.
  • Iron: participates in reward and motivation signals. Combats fatigue.
  • Zinc: helps regulate sleep and brain messengers.
  • Omega 3: essential for the development of neurons. Strengthens memory and learning. Improves mood.
  • Adaptogens: plants that provide an adaptive effect to stress such as Eleutherococcus senticosus, Rhodiola rosea and Schisandra chinensis, help to improve physical performance, learning and memory. They have an anti-inflammatory, antidepressant effect and protect organs from stress damage.

 

 

By Valentina Quintana

Surgeon from the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and specialist in Integrative Medicine. I help people to improve their health through lifestyle changes, adopting a diet with therapeutic purposes, focusing on the mind-gut relationship, and stress management techniques. Additionally, I teach Western Medicine in Acupuncture Schools and give educational workshops on Natural Medicine and healthy habits.

 

References

  1. Minichiello, V. J. (2018). Relaxation technique In Integrative medicine (4th ed., pp. 909-913). Philadelphia: David Rakel.
  2. SELYE H. (1950). Stress and the general adaptation syndrome. British medical journal, 1(4667), 1383-1392. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.1.4667.1383
  3. Norelli SK, Long A, Krepps JM. relaxation techniques. [Updated July 26, 2021]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK513238/
  4. Gomez-Pinilla F. (2008). Brain food: the effects of nutrients on brain function. Nature reviews. Neuroscience, 9(7), 568-578. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn2421
  5. Panossian, A., & Wikman, G. (2010). Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the Molecular Mechanisms Associated with Their Stress-Protective Activity. Pharmaceuticals (Basel, Switzerland), 3(1), 188-224. https://doi.org/10.3390/ph3010188.
  6. Todorova, V., Ivanov, K., Delattre, C., Nalbantova, V., Karcheva-Bahchevanska, D., & Ivanova, S. (2021). Plant Adaptogens-History and Future Perspectives. Nutrients, 13(8), 2861. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu13082861.

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