Chronic Stress Syndrome – Am I at Risk?

STRESS. You can’t escape it this year.  Every one is feeling it: fear, uncertainty and out of control. The whole world is stressed out!  It’s over the top with the ongoing pandemic and uncertainty about social distancing, and then pile on holiday stress, and it’s a recipe for a health disaster- it literally surrounds us in everyday life and virtually no one is immune to it.  However, a little bit of stress is actually a good thing! It keeps us – and our neurological system on its toes, for lack of a better term.  Our bodies are designed to respond to stressors, to get out of danger quickly, and then to return to a calm and balanced state.

But, while short-lived stress is generally harmless, and sometimes even helpful (hello there, motivating adrenaline rush!), it’s when the daily stressors just keep piling on and continue for months and months with no end in sight that it becomes chronic and that it can really start to take a toll on our bodies and create havoc in our lives – and in our health.

Chronic stress can cause a range of concerning symptoms, and not just the psychological ones we often associate it with.  It can also contribute to the development of a multitude of physical and mental disorders — it truly is a full-body response!

In fact, chronic stress has become so stealthy at infiltrating every part of our lives that health professionals have dubbed a new illness for a new era… Chronic Stress – the health epidemic of the 21st century. [1]

What Does Chronic Stress Feel Like?

First, we must understand what the natural (normal) stress response feels like:

  • Encounter a perceived threat – whether that’s real or imagined, physical, mental or emotional
  • Hypothalamus, a tiny region at your brain’s base, kicks into gear and sets off the alarm system in your body. 
  • Via nerve and hormonal signals (sent as a result of the alarm system), the adrenal glands are prompted to release stress hormones, including Adrenaline and Cortisol
    • Adrenaline increases heart rate, elevates blood pressure and pumps up energy reserves
    • Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases glucose in the bloodstream, enhances the brain’s use of glucose and bolsters tissue repair function
    • Cortisol also downgrades nonessential functions that would take up precious resources needed during the fight-or-flight response. For example, the immune system, digestive system, reproductive system and growth processes are all put on the backburner.
  • Perceived threat has passed, hormone levels return to normal. For example, as stress hormone levels drop, heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels, and other body systems resume their regular activities too. [2]

But, what happens when the normal stress response goes into overdrive?

Even though a lion isn’t chasing you across the grassy plains anymore, you probably have a seemingly continuous accumulation of different types of stress – from global events to your private life, professional life and everywhere in between. 

This includes overeating, toxic relationships, and non-stop information + digital overload!

Long-term activation of your stress-response system (as if your natural fight or flight reaction switch stays in the ‘on’ position), coupled with the overexposure to stress hormones like Cortisol can disrupt nearly all your body’s complex systems and processes.

The health problems associated with chronic stress:

  • Anxiety, depression and other mental health issues, including phobias, bipolar disorder & schizophrenia
  • Mood changes and easy to anger
  • Digestive issues like diarrhea and constipation
  • Appetite changes – increased or decreased
  • Weight gain and obesity
  • Headaches and chronic body pain
  • Rapid heartbeat and palpitations
  • Increased risk for hypertension, heart attack, heart disease & stroke
  • Lower immunity and frequent sickness
  • Contributes to premature aging
  • Lowered libido, increased sexual dysfunction
  • Hormone imbalances (closely associated with Adrenal Dysfunction) and fertility issues
  • Sleep problems and insomnia
  • Decreased energy and fatigue
  • Memory impairment and difficulty concentrating
  • Skin issues like acne, eczema, vitiligo, hives and psoriasis
  • Excessive sweating
  • Can contribute to, and exacerbate addictions (and addictive behavior) [3][4]

And so many, many more possible symptoms – and why it is now being referred to as the “health epidemic of the 21st century” .

Preventing Chronic Stress Syndrome

Chronic stress can become very overwhelming, especially due to that feeling of being constantly under a full-body & mind attack! However, there are a number of ways you can reduce stress levels and improve the uncomfortable symptoms you might be experiencing.

Here are 5 ways to manage stress and prevent Chronic Stress Syndrome:

  1. Identify and then avoid your personal stress triggers, when possible. Taking note of your own specific triggers can help you to develop personalized coping and management strategies (such as turning off news feeds and unplugging electronics). Reducing exposure to them is going to be key in prevention though.
  2. Improve your sleep. Ideally getting to bed by 10 pm to get optimal restorative deep and REM sleep. Easier said than done, but getting too little sleep or poor quality sleep can significantly contribute to stress load. Generally, avoiding caffeine, eating too much (or being hungry), intense exercise and devices (!!) before bed is sound advice.
  3. Eat a healthy diet, including limiting caffeine, alcohol and excessive sugar intake which can all stress the nervous system.
  4. Exercise regularly to increase the body’s production of endorphins – chemicals that boost mood and reduce stress. You could try walking, cycling, running, circuit training, a HIIT workout, or playing sports. You just need to move your body, work up a sweat and do something that you actually enjoy.  Watch out for overtraining as that adds more stress.
  5. Practice relaxation techniques such as yoga, deep breathing, alternate nostril breathing, or mindfulness meditation.

With the very real risk of being affected by chronic stress, it’s increasingly more important to pay close attention to how you deal with both minor and major stress events, and be able to tune into and recognize the signs & symptoms of chronic stress — so that you know how and when to seek help.

Here’s a relaxing DIY essential oil blend for those times when you’ve scheduled one too many activities into your day – which is probably every day 😉


RECIPE

EO Blend for Busy Schedule Relief

Essential oils recommended to blend:

12 drops of ylang-ylang

10 drops of vetiver

8 drops of lavender

6 drops of cedarwood

4 drops of bergamot

Preparation & uses:

In a clean, dark glass bottle (to protect it from UV light), blend together ¼ cup carrier oil (fractionated coconut oil is my favorite) with the 5 recommended essential oils.

Rub a few drops of the blend between your palms and breathe deeply for an immediate feeling of relief from stress and anxiety caused by stressful situations – like your too-busy schedule!

Or place a few drops on your temples and back of your neck, or even on the bottoms of your feet and rub gently.

If using for bath water, do not add carrier oil, and just add a few drops of the EO blend.

Take a few deep breaths in and LET IT GO!  Tap into the feeling of being calm and relaxed so you could go back to that memory throughout your day to shift out of anxiety to bliss.  Enjoy!  😍💖

REFERENCES

[1] Elsevier (SciTech Connect, April 2016) – Stress: the health epidemic of the 21st century

[2] Mayo Clinic (Stress Management, March 2019) – Chronic stress puts your health at risk

[3] Medical News Today (October 2018) – What are the health effects of chronic stress?

[4] Healthline (January 2018) – 11 signs & symptoms of too much stress

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