Updated: Mar 8, 2021
Being ‘stressed’ has become the buzzword of modern societies with devastating effects on both mental, emotional and physical health. In 2015/16 anxiety and depression accounted for 37% of all work ill health cases in the UK with money and work worries topping the list, and we are continuing to see increasing rates of stress-related conditions including cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, and mental health problems.
But not all stress is bad. In fact, it is not only essential for survival but also for simple tasks such as waking up in the morning. When faced with a stressor, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is activated, initiating a cascade of hormonal changes including the secretion of adrenaline and cortisol by the adrenal glands. Characterised by symptoms such as increased heart rate, breathing rate and delivery of oxygen and glucose to muscles, this mechanism overrides (at the time) less critical bodily function such as digestion and immune function. As the HPA axis is regulated by a negative feedback system, the release of cortisol is designed to reduce once the stressor is gone. For our cave-dwelling relatives who came upon a predator, this enabled their survival by responding quicker, running faster and thinking clearer.
But the modern human is faced with a much more common scenario - the perception of ‘threat’ which has left us with a legacy of a chronically activated stress response. Whether we are dealing with an upcoming work presentation, a crumbling relationship or societal expectations – our physiological stress response does not differentiate and the result can be detrimental to health and cause digestive issues, weight gain, high blood pressure, heart disease, poor immunity, and infertility.
Researchers have identified four key markers in determining the impact of stress, known as the acronym N.U.T.S i.e. novelty, unpredictability, threat, and sense of no control. This separates us from many other mammals. As Sapolsky describes in his book ‘Why zebras don’t get ulcers’; from peacefully grazing to rapidly escaping the claws of the hunting lioness, the Zebra’s ‘fight or flight’ response responds solely to acute physical threats. Once the imminent danger has passed, the Zebra returns to its grazing without racing thoughts on what could have happened, what might happen in the future, what could happen to others, or what is the meaning of it all?
Diet is also critical to stress. It provides the raw materials needed by the body to deal with stress and it can become a stressor in itself. High sugar-high fat diets can effectively turn off the fat burning mechanism, contribute to visceral obesity and increase the risk of metabolic syndrome. On a cellular level, some evidence suggests that a similar ‘fight or flight’ response can be triggered and is involved in switching ‘on or off’ our genes (epigenetics) in response to intercellular stressors such as toxins, pathogens, antibiotics and inflammatory hormones.
In identifying and addressing potential causes of stress we can begin to alter our stress response. A few simple strategies that can be applied daily are:
Acknowledging that thoughts are beliefs and no more real than we give them credit.
Consider ‘threatening’ situations as the growth of something new or a new insight
Using a framework of mindfulness such as mindfulness-based cognitive based therapy (MCBT) to change our reactions to stressful situations. For example, a study in 2008 found MCBT to be of more value than antidepressants in its focus groups, and that the mindfulness skills also helped to improve quality of life and reducing the occurrences of relapses.
Combining these strategies with getting 7 to 8 hours good quality sleep a night, regular daylight exposure, eating a colourful wholefood diet that includes protein with every meal, and limiting exposure to blue light screens before bed can help our adrenals to better deal and recover from stress. In other words, there is nothing wrong with a busy lifestyle as long as we give the same attention to nourishment, relaxation and reducing our mental load.
The information in this blog is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The material on this blog is provided for informational purposes only. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay medical treatment because of something you have read on this website.
Health & Safety Executive (HSE): Work related stress, anxiety and depression statistics in Great Britain 2016. Available at: http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/stress/
Miroslaw, J. et al. (2015). ‘The Relationship of Metabolic Syndrome with Stress, Coronary Heart Disease and Pulmonary Function - An Occupational Cohort-Based Study’. Plos One. 10(18). Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4537246/
NHS Choices: Stress, anxiety and depression. NHS UK. Available at: http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/Pages/understanding-stress.aspx
Sundquist, J et al. (2014). ‘Mindfulness group therapy in primary care patients with depression, anxiety and stress and adjustment disorders: randomised controlled trial’. The British Journal of Psychiatry, November 2014. Available at: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/11/141127112755.htm
Sapolsky, R.M (2004). Why zebras don’t get ulcers 3rd Ed. New York: St Martins’ Griffin
Kuo, L.E. et al. (2008). Chronic Stress, Combined with a High-Fat/High-Sugar Diet, Shifts Sympathetic Signaling toward Neuropeptide Y and Leads to Obesity and the Metabolic Syndrome. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. Vol 1148(Dec 2008): 232–237. Available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/wol1/doi/10.1196/annals.1410.035/full
Goligorsky, M.S (2001) ‘The concept of cellular “fight-or-flight” reaction to stress’. American Journal of Physiology - Renal Physiology. Vol. 280(4): 551-561. Available at: http://ajprenal.physiology.org/content/280/4/F551.long
Figueiro, M.G and Rea, M.S (2012). ‘Short-Wavelength Light Enhances Cortisol Awakening Response in Sleep-Restricted Adolescents’. International Journal of Endocrinology.
Volume 2012. Available at: https://www.hindawi.com/journals/ije/2012/301935/