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Stress - why does it happen, and how can we manage it?

Been feeling a little stressed recently? You're not the only one. This article supports you to understand what you can do to take control.

So far, 2020 has been an overwhelmingly stressful year for us all. The pandemic has unpredictably thrown stress and uncertainty into our lives from many different angles, whether it be health worries, job security, childcare or worrying about a loved one. 

We all recognise the unpleasant sensation of stress: racing heart, racing mind, tightening of muscles, and perhaps feeling exhausted and overwhelmed by the day ahead – but is there anything we can we do about it? 

The thing is, stressors (the things that cause the feelings of stress) will likely always be around, but it is empowering to know that there are many activities we can do to enhance our sense of wellbeing. 

This article will firstly look at the reasons for stress – in general stress is not considered useful, so why are we biologically ‘programmed’ to feel such a negative thing? Secondly, we will explore the countless proactive activities we can incorporate into our day-to-day, to provide resilience and peace of mind. 

No matter what your age, gender, occupation, or lifestyle – there is something everybody can do to take control of stress. 

Stress – a natural response 

The stress response has its roots in our evolutionary ancestors:

  1. When faced with a potentially dangerous situation, such as a sabretooth tiger, the ‘fear centre’ in the brain (the amygdala) sends signals to the hypothalamus - our brain's command centre - and activates our sympathetic nervous system (SNS). 
  2. SNS activation results in a release of the hormones cortisol and adrenaline, the ‘stress hormones’.
  3. Stress hormones travel around the body, communicating to our bodily processes to increase (such as our heart rate) or decrease (such as your digestive processes) – whatever will help you run away from the tiger quickest!

You may have heard people call this the ‘fight-or-flight response’

The ‘fight-or-flight response’ is a basic survival instinct which we all share - we are biologically programmed to survive. In the present-day, dangerous situations have been replaced by modern stressors, such as your daily commute, work pressure, childcare or financial stress, whatever it may be. 

The truth is that a small amount of stress is healthy. It is a natural response to feeling under threat, and it can help us to stay safe, or motivate us to complete deadlines on time! For example, the levels of cortisol in our blood changes throughout the day, enabling us to be more focussed and active when we need it. Upon waking our cortisol hormone is generally at its highest, helping us to rise from our sleepy state. 

A recent study has found that humans are biologically programmed to be either a ‘night owl’ or a ‘morning lark’ depending on your cortisol release. The researchers found that ‘morning types’ had a greater cortisol response than night owls upon awakening [1]. A scientifically-proven excuse for ‘night owls’ to enjoy that lie-in!

Stress becomes problematic for us when it becomes too high. If you frequently feel stressed, your body may be releasing too much cortisol, leading to unnecessary and unpleasant symptoms and a reduced sense of wellbeing. You can check your stress levels with our Stress Cortisol Saliva Tests (6). Your results will be analysed by one of our expert doctors, who can help to identify if your cortisol levels are higher than they should be. 

Too much stress - the long-term effects

A small amount of stress in the short-term may be helpful, but if you feel symptoms of stress regularly, you may be bearing the brunt of chronic stress. Chronic stress can wreak havoc on our bodies because high cortisol continuously prepares your body for action. 

Some consequences of chronic stress on the body include: 

•    Impaired immune function
•    Sleep disturbances
•    High blood pressure 
•    Greater risk of cardiovascular disease
•    Impaired regulation of blood sugar
•    Changes to dietary habits 
•    Food cravings 
•    Mood changes 
•    Depression
•    Memory problems
•    Bodyweight changes [2-6]

Taking control of chronic stress

There are many things we can try to alleviate feelings of chronic stress. What works for one person may not work for everyone, so it is worth giving a few a try to find what works best for you. 

1)    Identify your stressors 

  • Start by measuring your cortisol levels at 6 points over a 24-hour period with our Stress Cortisol Saliva Tests (6). The level of cortisol you produce, at specific time points in the day, can help to pin-point the events which are contributing most greatly to your overall feeling of stress, and decide what areas to focus de-stressing. 
  • Keep a mood and symptom diary for two-to-four weeks – it can help you recognise the stressors in your life, which are leading to the overwhelming feeling of stress.

2)    Take action

  • Visit your GP to talk things through. They may recommend a talking therapy such as counselling or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
  • Make lists to prioritise tasks, set time limits and drop tasks which are not a priority.
  • Be proactive – send that email you’ve been putting off and make a start on tasks ruminating in the back of your mind.

3)    Fit positive activities into your daily routine

  • Try relaxation techniques – it has been found that two yoga classes a week, over a 6-month period, is beneficial for reducing blood cortisol levels along with improvements to anxiety, depression, and stress [7]. Though, just one session may be beneficial, as practising yoga for just 90-minutes has found to reduce cortisol levels in the body [8]. So, fitting a session into your weekly routine (or daily, if you have the time!) may be beneficial for combatting stress.   
  • Practice mindfulness – mindfulness is an awareness of the present moment, in your mind, body and surroundings and is beneficial to both cortisol levels and sleep quality [9].
  • Cut down on caffeine – especially if you are ‘caffeine sensitive’. Caffeine can lead to an increase in cortisol levels [10, 11], so it may contribute to your feelings of stress. Some people are more genetically susceptible to the negative effects of caffeine than others [12]. If you need a cuppa, opt for tea, as tea has around half the quantity of caffeine compared to coffee [13]. Green tea may be even better, as the combination of naturally occurring caffeine alongside an amino acid (L-theanine), means that green tea has the unique effect of being stimulating at the same time as relaxing [14, 15].
  • Move your body – exercise is proven to boost feel-good chemicals, alleviate stress and improve overall mood [16]. Though, beware of over-doing it, exercising too much (overtraining) can increase your cortisol levels [17].
  • Practice good sleep hygiene – sleep loss has been linked to elevated cortisol levels [18]. Switch off your gadgets and prepare for sleep by winding down with relaxing activities an hour before bed. Also, try to sleep and wake at the same time every day, to train your body’s internal clock to work in your favour [19].

We have evolved to feel stress to protect us – though, in the modern day, it is easy to feel as though stress is taking control. A few simple lifestyle changes can allow you take control of stress. Monitoring your stress levels throughout the day, with a Stress Cortisol Saliva Test, is a valuable way to identify the areas of your life which you need to focus on.

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References 

1.    Katja Petrowski, Bjarne Schmalbach, and Tobias Stalder, Morning and evening type: The cortisol awakening response in a sleep laboratory. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2020. 112: p. 104519.
2.    Ahmed Tawakol, et al., Relation between resting amygdalar activity and cardiovascular events: a longitudinal and cohort study. The Lancet, 2017. 389(10071): p. 834-845.
3.    Clementine Maddock and Carmine M Pariante, How does stress affect you? An overview of stress, immunity, depression and disease. Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences, 2001. 10(3): p. 153-162.
4.    Kuem Sun Han, Lin Kim, and Insop Shim, Stress and sleep disorder. Experimental neurobiology, 2012. 21(4): p. 141-150.
5.    S. J. Lupien, et al., Stress-Induced Declarative Memory Impairment in Healthy Elderly Subjects: Relationship to Cortisol Reactivity1. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 1997. 82(7): p. 2070-2075.
6.    Ariana M Chao, et al., Stress, cortisol, and other appetite‐related hormones: Prospective prediction of 6‐month changes in food cravings and weight. Obesity, 2017. 25(4): p. 713-720.
7.    K. K. F. Rocha, et al., Improvement in physiological and psychological parameters after 6months of yoga practice. Consciousness and Cognition, 2012. 21(2): p. 843-850.
8.    Jeremy West, et al., Effects of hatha yoga and african dance on perceived stress, affect, and salivary cortisol. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 2004. 28(2): p. 114-118.
9.    Serge Brand, et al., Influence of mindfulness practice on cortisol and sleep in long-term and short-term meditators. Neuropsychobiology, 2012. 65(3): p. 109-118.
10.    William R. Lovallo, et al., Caffeine stimulation of cortisol secretion across the waking hours in relation to caffeine intake levels. Psychosomatic medicine, 2005. 67(5): p. 734-739.
11.    William R. Lovallo, et al., Cortisol responses to mental stress, exercise, and meals following caffeine intake in men and women. Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, 2006. 83(3): p. 441-447.
12.    Hans-Peter Landolt, “No Thanks, Coffee Keeps Me Awake”: Individual Caffeine Sensitivity Depends on ADORA2A Genotype. Sleep, 2012. 35(7): p. 899-900.
13.    BBC Good Food. How much caffeine is in tea? 2020  [cited 2020 3rd November]; Available from: https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/howto/guide/how-much-caffeine-tea.
14.    Chan Hee Song, et al., Effects of theanine on the release of brain alpha wave in adult males. Korean Journal of Nutrition, 2003. 36(9): p. 918-923.
15.    Kenta Kimura, et al., l-Theanine reduces psychological and physiological stress responses. Biological Psychology, 2007. 74(1): p. 39-45.
16.    Julia C. Basso and Wendy A. Suzuki, The Effects of Acute Exercise on Mood, Cognition, Neurophysiology, and Neurochemical Pathways: A Review. Brain Plasticity, 2017. 2: p. 127-152.
17.    E. E. Hill, et al., Exercise and circulating Cortisol levels: The intensity threshold effect. Journal of Endocrinological Investigation, 2008. 31(7): p. 587-591.
18.    Rachel Leproult, et al., Sleep Loss Results in an Elevation of Cortisol Levels the Next Evening. Sleep, 1997. 20(10): p. 865-870.
19.    Headspace. Sleep Hygiene Tips.  [cited 2020 November 11th]; Available from: https://www.headspace.com/sleep/sleep-hygiene.