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Valentina Quintana

How do I know I have stress?

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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, it is difficult for us to stay focused, we suffer mood swings and we notice that the 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 discomforts.

In this article, you’ll find everything you need to know to understand what happens in your body and mind when you experience 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 you are faced with a threat to your life or safety, in order to survive, your body responds with a large number of adaptive changes that involve the activation of the nervous and hormonal systems.

Once the stimulus stops, the body will return to its basal 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 you’re stressed by a presentation to a large audience, you may only experience the first phase of alertness with the acute activation of the nervous system. However, if the situation is prolonged over time, such as in the case of losing your job or having a family member with a serious illness, your body will trigger the necessary changes to adapt, which can 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
  • Rapid breathing
  • Digestive discomfort such as nausea, diarrhea, or abdominal pain

Second, defense or resistance phase

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 in cortisol in the blood, which has the function of keeping blood sugar levels stable so that it can be used by your muscles, your heart and your brain, and thus be able to respond appropriately to the stressful situation.

Third, Exhaustion Phase

This stage only appears if the threat persists over time, and the activation of the nervous system and hormonal system remain active. After a while, the hormones become less effective at responding. The body becomes exhausted and the signals are slower, 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 weakens and diseases 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 them are as follows:

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

The holidays are over: the stress of going back to work

During the holiday 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 allow you to stay active and energized enough to respond to changes, decreasing the risk of falling into chronic stress and all its consequences.

Consider making a plan to organize your schedules and activities and ensure times for self-care, as suggested in the next section.

Natural Solutions to Stress

While there are situations that are beyond our control, below you will find a list of tools that you can implement in your day-to-day 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.
  • Watch your sleep: Avoid activities that are very stimulating in the hours before bed, such as watching TV, strenuous exercise, or planning. You can take a warm bath, listen to soothing music, or write in your journal.
  • 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 give you rewardment: painting, drawing, riding a bike, playing an instrument, listening to your favorite music, reading a book, etc.
  • Practice a physical activity that you enjoy: keeping the body active helps you feel well-being and strengthens the body’s response to any stressful situation
  • Practice Yoga in the morning or before bed
  • Practice 15 minutes of meditation
  • Take 5 minutes of slow, deep breaths
  • Seek help. Going to therapy can help you acquire psychological tools to cope with difficult periods in your life.

Breathing Exercise

There are numerous breathing techniques that promote relaxation. In this article, you’ll 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 the air 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
  • Repeated

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 each of its sides in your mind, completing the square with each cycle. Practice this exercise for 5 minutes in the morning and evening, or as many times as you deem necessary.

Nutrition to Improve Stress

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

Nutritional deficits, 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 essential nutrients for an optimal stress response, and proper recovery, are:

  • Vitamin D: Maintains cognitive functions and strengthens the immune system.
  • Vitamins B6, B9 and B12: help preserve memory and communication in the nervous system.
  • Magnesium: regulates muscle health, protects the brain. Its absence can cause nervousness, mood swings and poor concentration.
  • Iron: Participates in reward and motivation signals. Fights 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 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 improve their health through lifestyle changes, adopting a diet for therapeutic purposes, with a focus on the mind-gut relationship, and with stress management techniques. Additionally, I work as a professor of Western Medicine in Acupuncture Schools and I give educational workshops on Natural Medicine and healthy habits.


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