Stress and Anxiety
Are you stressed right now? You’re probably thinking about all the things you have to do for your kids, spouse, pets, work, etc. etc. That is completely normal. Stress is normal, believe it or not. Too much stress on the other hand can be dangerous. The difference is when you are stressing about ordinary things on a daily basis and worrying yourself sick---that is too much stress. Mental health is something that is very near and dear to my heart, as well as the hearts of many of you, readers. The connections between mental health and nutrition are so fascinating to me. Making sure your mental health is in tip-top shape along with your physical health is so important. The connections between your brain and other organs are strong and complex. Stress is something that we all experience on a daily basis. My goal for this year is to have a solid hold on how I manage my stress levels. What about you? How are you managing stress? Keep on reading and you may learn a thing or two that will change the way you look at the stressors in your life.
What is stress?
Stress is your body’s response to environmental triggers and stimuli. Stress helps your body adapt to different situations. Stress can be a good thing and a bad thing. Healthy amounts of stress can keep you aware and alert in situations, ready to make a quick move. Too much stress, on the other hand, can alter your overall wellbeing and the way you treat yourself as well as the people around you.
What does stress look like?
There are various physical, mental, and behavioral symptoms of stress that can develop, depending on the individual. The physical symptoms can be aches/pains, a racing heart, exhaustion, trouble sleeping, high blood pressure, stomach distress, and muscle tension. Your body is going through what is called the “fight or flight” response. This is the same response that cavemen used when fighting off a wild animal. Except in this case, you may be stressing about a presentation for work as opposed to a battle with a saber tooth tiger.
Mental symptoms can include depression, anxiety, panic attacks and feelings of sadness/withdrawal. While the physical symptoms result in wear and tear on your body, the mental symptoms can wreak havoc on your brain and overall emotional well-being.
Behavioral symptoms can be complex, as they depend on how you are coping (or not coping) with the stressors. Problems with intimacy can be one example.
What is the difference between anxiety and stress?
These two words are used interchangeably in many settings, but they are actually very different. While stress is when a person is under pressure and experiences any of the mental/physical symptoms listed above, anxiety is the persistent and constant worrisome behavior that doesn't go away, even when the stressor isn’t present.
What are the links, if any, to cancer and heart disease?
According to the National Cancer Institute, there is not sufficient evidence to make the claim that stress causes cancer. There are many other behaviors that increase the risk of cancer, but stress is just correlated with some of those instances. Correlational does not mean causation. If someone is stressed, they may turn to cigarettes to feel a sense of calm. That behavior of smoking cigarettes increases the risk of lung cancer. Similarly, the American Heart Association says that more research needs to be done regarding the links between stress and heart disease. Like with cancer, stress increases risk factors that may determine a higher risk of heart disease. For example, high blood pressure is a significant factor in determining whether or not someone is predisposed to heart disease.
Are there different types of stress?
According to the American Psychological Association, there are three types of stress:
Acute stress: This is the most common form of stress. This is the feeling when you take a test, get into an argument, or even hear your alarm clock going off. The threat can be small or big - it’s the perceived threat level that triggers the stress response in the body.
Episodic acute stress: This occurs when someone experiences acute stress frequently. This can be experienced when you feel like you’re always under pressure to meet a deadline or you feel like things are going wrong at every corner.
Chronic stress: Chronic stress is a prolonged feeling of stress. It can be a means for destruction in your body if it goes untreated (medically, via therapy, etc.). Chronic stress can be caused by daily situations or by traumatic life events. Irritability, difficulty concentrating, appetite changes, and disorganization can be a few symptoms to look for. Chronic stress can affect nearly every aspect of your body. From your immune system to your digestive system, chronic stress can gain a firm grasp on your body fast.
Which organs are most affected by stress?
Stress affects all body systems: musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, respiratory, endocrine, nervous, gastrointestinal, and reproductive. Your muscles tense up when you are stressed, leading to tension headaches in some cases. During times of stress, your body releases a hormone called cortisol from the endocrine system. The gastrointestinal system has lots of stress-related connections. Stress makes stomach uneasiness feel more common and stronger. Stress can also cause changes in appetite.
What happens inside my body when I am stressed?
When you are stressed, your body goes into “fight or flight” mode. As discussed above, this is the stress response that each of us has at birth. Your heart rate increases, breathing quickens, and blood pressure rises. Each person reacts to stress differently, but the fight or flight response is in each of us.
Is stress genetic or environmental?
Both! The way we react to stressful situations depends on our environment as well as genetics. Our personalities, support from others, and any trauma(s) can affect the way we react to stress.
What is the link between stress and nutrition?
Nutrition and stress are deeply related. Eating regularly and involving healthy fats associated with brain function are important. Add in some high-fiber foods and vegetables and you will give your brain the necessary nutrients it needs to respond to stress in a productive and responsible way. By adding in these food items, you may not rely on unhealthy snacks as much.
Can you measure stress?
Stress cannot be measured. Only you know how stressed you truly are - nobody can determine that for you. There is no test to measure how stressed you are. There may be questions that a healthcare professional will ask you when determining the next course of action, however.
How can I cope with stress?
Healthy coping strategies are some of the only ways we can deal with stress in a responsible and healthy way. Unhealthy behaviors can include: gambling, compulsive drinking, smoking, using illicit drugs, and developing an eating disorder. Some good alternatives for stress relief include:
Exercise when you feel stress symptoms coming on. Even if it’s a walk around your yard or block - every little bit helps.
Set aside time at the end of your day to reflect on the tasks you accomplished and completed. Focus on the positive aspects of your day and the goals you achieved.
Set goals for your day and week. I love the feeling of accomplishing a task and crossing it off in my planner. It keeps me focused on what needs to be done for the day without being too overwhelmed.
If you are having issues with stress still after implementing the ideas I stated above, I would recommend seeing a healthcare professional to address your feelings of stress. While this doesn’t mean that you will automatically be prescribed medication, it would be wise to discuss your overall health and wellbeing with someone who is familiar with your medical history.
Diet and nutrition are critical for managing stress. Eating a high sugar diet will actually cause physical and emotional stress from blood sugar swings. Choose a low carbohydrate/low sugar diet, complete with healthy fats and fiber for your best low-stress life.
Want to know more about stress awareness? Click here for my stress awareness blog post.
How can I prevent stress?
Unfortunately, stress is unavoidable. Stress is an integral part of our lives, whether we like it or not. Some ideas to prevent overwhelming stress are as follows:
Participate in relaxing activities like yoga and meditation. Stay grounded and mindful with these practices to let go of the stress from your workday and reflect on the day as a whole. Practicing mindfulness is a goal that I have for the rest of this year.
A good diet and hydration routine are great ways to keep your health in check - both physical and mental.
Finally, the one that I know we all can work on: accept that some things are not in your control. Embrace this and you will find yourself with less stress over situations you have zero control over.
Vitamin D, aka the “Sunshine Vitamin”
If you’ve read my previous post about Vitamin D, you already know how important that vitamin is to our wellbeing. Most American adults are deficient in Vitamin D. I recommend taking a Vitamin D3 supplement, as it is better absorbed by your body. Click here for more information on this sunny supplement.
An ancient remedy, Ashwagandha has been used for disease treatment for centuries. It is believed that this supplement can help with anxiety and depression. Results from current studies have been promising (check this one out!)
Stress is stressful isn't it? How you deal with stress is up to you - some see it as a choice and others see it as dependent on how you were raised. I think it is an interaction of both environmental factors and genetics. Developing responsible and healthy coping skills for stressful situations is an admirable and tough feat. With the year we’ve had, we could all use some good stress-relieving and stress-preventing strategies. If you’re feeling overwhelmed with stress, I’d love to discuss some options for lifestyle and supplement changes - Schedule a consult with me, Carly Neubert BA, NC.