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.
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 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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.