What is Stress?
Stress is the body’s response to the perception of physical danger or emotional pressure. In our modern world threat may come to us in many different forms, a speeding vehicle, tight deadline or planning a wedding. Our stress hormones, adrenalin, noradrenalin and cortisol work for and against us. We can find ourselves trapped in a negative cycle and risk serious health consequences. ‘Life happens’ and we cannot always separate ourselves from external factors, much as we would like to do sometimes. We are part of our environment and our bodies are tuned to react and maintain homeostasis. To deny this fact and ‘carry on as normal’ can be detrimental to our health. We are finely balanced organisms and we should take every opportunity to be kind to ourselves when life delivers its inevitable trials.
Understanding the Difference Between ‘Distress’ and ‘Eustress’
The pressures of modern life contribute to the vast proportion of stress suffered by people today. The demands of work, meeting deadlines or worrying about job insecurity, financial worries, relationship difficulties or isolation and loneliness. Traumatic experiences such as bereavement and abuse or living with a disability can lead to long-term feelings of anxiety and depression. If we feel unable to cope with whatever situation we find ourselves in, then stress will be the result.
Negative stress or ‘distress’ can be short-term but is often suffered long-term with adverse consequences to health. Examples of distress are bereavement, financial worries or excessive employment demands which can lead to a feeling of being out of control and mental fatigue.
However, it’s not all bad news! Stress can also be positive, termed ‘eustress’. This is generally short term and after a period of struggle, will ultimately lead to a positive outcome such as studying for a qualification, competing in a sport or even giving birth. Eustress can give meaning to life. The feeling of overcoming a challenge can be a great confidence boost and enhance energy and productivity.
What is the ‘Fight or Flight Response’?
In a threatening situation the body’s first response is ‘fight or flight’. Instigated by the amygdala in the brain, signalling to the hypothalamus, the sympathetic nervous system stimulates the adrenal medulla to release adrenalin and noradrenalin. These hormones enter the bloodstream, acting upon tissues and organs to prepare the body for action to counter the threat. A person undergoing the ‘fight or flight’ response will experience a rapid heartbeat which raises blood pressure to power muscles and vital organs. Senses sharpen and breathing quickens ensuring the brain receives more oxygen to increase alertness.
As the initial rush of adrenalin and noradrenalin subsides the hypothalamus acts upon the pituitary gland triggering adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which in turn stimulates the adrenal cortex to release cortisol. This process is referred to as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.
Cortisol is a crucial hormone to overall health, influencing many systems of the body and is there to maintain homeostasis. During the stress response, higher levels of cortisol have positive short-term effects such as the suppression of inflammation and pain sensitivity. Energy is increased by the metabolism of fat, carbohydrate and protein and the release of stored glucose. Cognitive function is improved, and immunity is increased.
Where stress is prolonged the HPA axis remains activated and persistent elevated cortisol levels contribute to a negative effect on health. Cortisol supresses functions non-essential to the stress response, so if the stress continues, increased levels begin to disrupt the state of homeostasis. A person with chronic stress may experience numerous symptoms and even develop serious illnesses as the body’s systems are affected. Lowered immune function can result in more coughs and colds and hypersensitivity to pain causing headaches and musculoskeletal pain. Cortisol impairs the production of digestive enzymes causing an inability to absorb vital vitamins and minerals from food resulting in gastrointestinal problems. High blood pressure can lead to heart disease and imbalances in blood sugar risk the development of diabetes. The build-up of glucose and fat and an increased appetite for unhealthy food can lead to weight gain. Other problems include poor sleep patterns, low mood and memory and concentration impairment.
What Can I Do to Relieve Stress?
There are many coping mechanisms to combat stress, from self-care to seeking professional help. Simple breathing exercises and practicing mindfulness techniques can be very effective in bringing a halt, however briefly, to anxious feelings. Talking to a trusted friend or family member can be beneficial in giving perspective to a problem. General health management by eating a good diet, taking regular exercise and getting enough sleep can help with physical symptoms and aid wellbeing.
How Does Reflexology Help with Stress?
Complementary therapies that are tailored to the individual have differing and effective methods of countering stress. From contact therapies such as Reflexology, to herbal remedies, yoga and meditation. Reflexology works holistically in the relief of stress-related symptoms and balancing the internal energies. In addition to working on the body’s interconnected systems it has a relaxing effect giving a total ‘time out’ experience and the chance for natural healing to take place. Regular, weekly reflexology sessions can effectively help you through acute symptoms and periods of trauma, followed by monthly maintenance sessions for continued optimum health and balance.
I view stress not as an illness to be cured, but a condition or state of being to manage until the initial cause is resolved. When I am personally going through a stressful period in life, I have noticed that I display irrational behaviour, heightened emotions and an inability to cope with minor troubling incidents. Depression, anxiety and lack of motivation are also symptoms familiar to me. I am lucky to have a supportive family to talk through my feelings with and I have also sought professional counselling in the past. I practice yoga which is hugely beneficial for both body and mind and I try mindfulness (with varying success). The therapy that has helped me the most, through recovery from illness and particular low points in my life is Reflexology. It is the reason why I became a practitioner and why I believe in it and its amazing, positive effects on the health of both body and mind.
Where Can I find More Help and Information About Stress?
There are many publications out there giving valuable advice – I can recommend Dr Rangan Chatterjee’s book ‘The Stress Solution’ https://drchatterjee.com/the-stress-solution/ in which he advocates seeking complementary therapies such as Reflexology to help reduce stress levels and alleviate associated symptoms. You can also find a mine of information and further help on the 'Mind' website https://www.mind.org.uk.
However you choose to deal with stress, the important thing is that you DO deal with it, and regain control of your life.