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Stressing About Stress

What can we do about how we feel? If someone asked you right now to list the major stressors in your life, what would you say? Your job? Financial concerns? A relationship? Caregiving? Health issues? Or might you be one of the fortunate folks for whom stress is not really an issue? 

As we know, long-term, chronic stress is not a good thing to hang onto. Short-term stress, on the other hand, is our body’s way of effectively handling a real or perceived threat. Let’s take a look at both types. 

“’Fight or flight’ is the response our body has to a perceived stimulus that our brain interprets as a threat,” says Laura Longwell, DO and Primary Care Physician with the UCHealth Rockrimmon Primary Care Clinic. “Our brain and nervous system tell our adrenal glands to release adrenaline hormones (epinephrine and norepinephrine), which go throughout the body and ultimately result in symptoms we feel such as fast heart rate, rapid breathing, facial flushing, elevated blood pressure and increased muscle tension, amongst others. Cortisol is a stress hormone that we often hear about regarding stress in our bodies. We also have an emotional response that most would describe as anxiety and aggression, and a feeling of loss of control.”

Normally, says Dr. Longwell, our fight or flight response system is self-limiting, meaning our body normalizes itself. “Once the perceived threat is over, our hormone levels return to normal. As adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, heart rate and blood pressure return to normal and other systems get back to regular activities.”

So how do we help ensure that our fight or flight response works properly and that our systems return to normal as they should? And why is this so important? 

Dr. Rebecca Berghorst, MD and Director of Children’s Services with Cedar Springs Hospital, says normalizing the stress response is critical. “The key to normalizing the stress response is to first, perceive that the threat is extinguished or under control, using coping skills such as exercise, yoga and cognitive thoughts to normalize the stress response. If this is done adequately our body will normalize and we can move forward without any adverse consequences.”

But as many of us have likely experienced, some of life’s stressful situations don’t resolve quickly, and stress may become chronic. “There are many major life events that lead to stress in one’s life,” says Dr. Berghorst. “The death of a loved one, divorce, moving, poverty and loss of a job are top triggers for stress and anxiety.” 

And as Dr. Berghorst points out, stress affects not just us grown-ups, but our younger population as well. “In children,” says Berghorst, who is board certified in child and adolescent psychiatry, “it is interesting to see that moving schools, loss of friends and emotional breakups contribute to feelings of stress and anxiety.”

In fact, says Berghorst, children are especially susceptible to changes caused by chronic stress. “Chronic stress has been proven to form changes in a child’s brain. The frontal lobes, responsible for decision making and impulse control, are stunted. The amygdala, responsible for emotional memory, is overactive.”

Children’s brains, says Dr. Berghorst, are not developed until the mid- to late-twenties. “Children who have experienced chronic stress show on MRI scans a reduction in the frontal lobes of the brain and hyperactivity of the amygdala. There are also connections formed in the brain that become stronger in response to trauma and stress. A child’s fight or flight system is overactive and strengthened in response to chronic stress. The amygdala is overactive, which processes emotional memory. Children who have chronic stress often appear hyperactive and inattentive.”

Living in a chronic low-grade state of fight or flight, explains Dr. Longwell, results in overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones that can disrupt almost all of our body’s processes. “This puts us at increased risk of numerous health problems, including anxiety, depression, digestive problems, headaches, weight gain, sleep problems, memory and concentration impairment and heart disease. This is why it’s so important to learn healthy ways to cope with the stress in life.” 

Reducing chronic stress may be a big ship to turn. Can we do it?

“Absolutely,” says Longwell. “Overall, we have a feeling of wellness when we take care of our body, mind and spirit.”

Dr. Longwell recommends staying active and eating healthy, and she recommends a plant-based diet or Mediterranean-style diet, “as these types of healthy eating show true benefit in health when looking at the actual outcomes—lower cholesterol, better weight, better sleep, improved blood pressure, improved blood sugar control and better mood and outlook.” 

Did You Know?

In a 2017 APA survey report, the most common sources of stress in the U.S. were:

• the future of our nation

• money

• work

• current political climate

• violence and crime

 

Stress management methods included:

• listening to music – 47%

• exercising or walking - 46%

• praying – 29%

• mediating or yoga – 12%

• smoking – 14%

 

On average, women reported higher stress levels than men

 

Black and Hispanic men reported higher stress levels than white men

 

Older adults (72+ years) had the lowest stress levels among the generations 

 

Millennials reported the highest levels of stress