Stress is an all-encompassing word. While we identify stress as the causative problem, how we experience stress and how it manifests in ill health, can mean different things to different people. While some of the effects of stress may seem obvious, it can also disguise itself while slowly fatiguing body systems and causing behavioural or physical problems. (1)
Needless to say, 2020 has brought more stress for most Australians, as there has been no real avoiding the ripple effect of the COVID-19 pandemic. Poor sleep, eating comfort food and excess empty calories, smoking or drinking alcohol, avoiding social engagements, and lacking regular exercise are ways to respond counter-intuitively to stress. Over time, our bodies may increase weight and develop other symptoms associated with an unhealthy lifestyle. (2)
Our mental and cognitive health changes in response to stress, affecting our judgment. As one thing leads to another, the poor diet and lifestyle choices we make can lead to health issues, especially digestive health and cardiovascular health. Identifying the impact on your health is important to help find the right stress reduction techniques and understand how to minimise the harmful effects of chronic stress.
Stress and how it manifests: Brain Strain
When it comes to the stress response and how it manifests, our brains play a central role. (2) It is no wonder then that many of the obvious symptoms we associate with stress are identified as mental and cognitive health issues. Some studies have shown that stress can actually cause structural changes in different parts of the brain and has long-term effects on the nervous system. (3) Stress also has negative effects on learning(3) and decision making. (2) An impaired stress response produces overreaction, confusion, poor concentration and performance anxiety(1). In contrast, MRI images taken from the brains of people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have demonstrated neuro-physiological effects such as a weak verbal memory. (3) Stress resilience is key, and it is said that any behavioural steps undertaken to reduce stress leads to an increase in cognition. (3)
Stress and how it manifests: A Gut Reaction
When it comes to gut health, many people who experience prolonged periods of stress are familiar with its effects on their digestive function. Findings show that stress can affect appetite, increase intestinal bacteria counts(3), and alters the stomach’s acid concentration, which can lead to peptic ulcers, stress ulcers, or ulcerative colitis. (1)
When the gut is already a ‘weak spot’ symptoms worsened by stress can be uncomfortable and inconvenient. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is highly related to stress(3) which can also cause increased intestinal impermeability or ‘leaky gut’. Poor gut health can be a timely reminder to take care of one’s body and live in harmony with nature to improve our resilience to stress(4) and optimise gut health.
Stress and how it manifests: What your heart tells you
The initial effect of stress on heart function is usually on the heart rate, while the next significant effect is blood pressure. (3) Several studies have demonstrated that psychological stress decreases the microcirculation in the coronary arteries and increases the risk of myocardial infarction (heart attack). (3) Chronic stress can also lead to plaque buildup in the arteries (atherosclerosis), especially if combined with a high-fat diet and sedentary living. (1) Simply put, regardless of the acute (short-lived) experience of stress or chronic (longer-term), the heart will be impacted. How this manifests depends on our underlying cardiovascular health and our ability to recover from and adapt to stress, known as stress resilience.
Stress Resilience is just as important as Stress Reduction
To be resilient to stress can occur in different ways, including neuroplasticity of the brain as it adapts to the problem. Practising mindfulness can also help to make us much more resilient, perceiving stress as a challenge – a chance for growth and development rather than a threat. (4)
- Characteristics of a resilient personality are:(4)
- ability to cope and flexibility to unexpected changes
- ability to seek support
- taking care of one’s body and living in harmony with nature
- optimism and sense of humour
- developing spiritualism and seeking a true sense
Here at the clinic, we look to support the organ systems affected by stress to create better resilience. Nervous system and adrenal support are paramount to building stress tolerance. Herbal medicine’s power is often experienced at its best when it comes to using herbs with adaptogenic properties – helping the body adapt to stress. While there is often no avoiding stress, getting the support to feel protected from its deleterious effects are something to be reckoned with.