Oh it’s the most stressful time of the year.
With the kids always screaming
And everyone telling you ‘buy Christmas stuff here’
Oh yes, it’s the most stressful time of the year.
Do you consider yourself to be stressed? Based on the stats, you mostly likely do.
In 2010, slightly more than 1 in 4 Canadian workers described their day-to-day lives as highly stressful. Persistently high levels of stress among so many in the workforce present a challenge to both employers and to the health care system. Over time, employers lose productivity to stress through absenteeism, reduced work output, and increased disability claims. Mental health problems alone are estimated to cost employers about $20 billion annually and account for over three-quarters of short-term disability claims in Canada. That’s a lot of stressed out people!
The Stress Response and The Brain
We talk about stress, at least in passing quite often, but what does the ‘Stress Response’ look like? I’m going to outline how our brains interpret stress:
A stressor is sensed by the body, sending a signal to the brain, which sounds the alarm for the body that something is happening. This signal is sent to the hypothalamus otherwise known as the ‘master gland’, which then activates the Autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS has control over most major organs: lungs, heart, stomach, glands and blood vessels.
The ANS is further broken down into two branches: Sympathetic and Parasympathetic. The Sympathetic is often referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ response whereas Parasympathetic is responsible for ‘rest and digest’.
When we’re stressed, the ANS is going to trigger the Sympathetic branch, which releases noradrenaline. This results in enhanced muscular strength, increased heart rate and breakdown and use of sugar and fat for energy. Hundreds of years ago this was a good thing because this increase in energy would allow us to run away from a threat like a hungry tiger trying to eat us. However, today’s stressors are often not so easy to run away from, like an angry boss yelling at us. The underlying problem here is that the brain doesn’t distinguish between your boss and the tiger. To your brain, they’re both the same thing.
Think of revving up the engine of a race car in anticipation of the start flag dropping, and then just before it drops, the blocks are stuck under the wheels so when you hit the gas you’re stuck in place. So you’re spinning your wheels, getting nowhere, but you’re still using gas and burning rubber. What do you think this will result in? Well eventually you’re going to run out of gas or your tires will be so worn down you're on the rims. In terms of your body, eventually your adrenaline will run out and your body will crash, in extreme circumstances this is what we would call burnout.
Even before we reach burnout, we’re still doing considerable damage to our bodies. Another troublesome hormone that’s upregulated at this time is cortisol. Chronically elevated levels of cortisol interfere with learning and memory, lower immune function, increased blood pressure, increase risk for mental illness, and lower life expectancy.
What Can We Do About Stress?
Keeping this in mind, what can we do to change this for the better? We can’t eliminate stress altogether, a little bit of stress is a good thing. However, the problem starts when this crosses over into distress, when stress is no longer tolerable or manageable. This is when we need to put strategies in place that help to minimize the experience of negative stress. I’m going to touch on 5 things that can help keep stress under control.
The first is exercise! A little bit of cardio goes a long way. Just 20-30 minutes of activity most days of the week pays huge dividends. If running or working out at the gym isn’t your thing that’s ok, any form of activity that activates the muscles: walking, swimming, yoga, tai chi, etc. will have similar benefits in this respect.
The second is meditation or prayer. Simply taking a few deep breaths engages the Vagus nerve which triggers a signal within your nervous system to slow your heart rate, lower blood pressure and decreases cortisol. The next time you feel yourself in a stressful situation that activates your ‘Fight-or-Flight’ response take 10 deep breaths and feel your entire body relax and decompress.
The third is social interaction. Researchers at Johns Hopkins established that elevated levels of cortisol in adolescence change the expression of numerous genes linked to mental illness, in effect causing severe mental illness in those predisposed to it. However, when these same teens interacted with their peers in a social context, their cortisol levels dropped as did their risk for mental illness.
The fourth is sleep. Getting enough sleep every day means that cortisol levels rise and fall in sync with your circadian rhythms, which is the overall function of your body in a 24 hour period. When you lose sleep, or are sleep deprived on a regular basis this can have a detrimental impact on your cortisol levels and hence your overall stress.
Laughter is the best Medicine
The fifth is laughing. They weren’t kidding when they said that laughter is the best medicine. Dr. William Fry, an American psychiatrist who has been studying the benefits of laughter for the past 30 years, has found links to laughter and lowered levels of stress hormones.
Now, these are by no means the only things that can help decrease stress. Other important factors like your diet and lifestyle, such as allowing yourself to relax and do things you enjoy, can have a huge impact as well. If you find that dealing with stress from day to day is truly too overwhelming for you, it might be a good idea to speak with a trained professional, like a counselor or your Naturopathic Doctor. However you deal with stress, make sure it’s a strategy that works for you, because at the end of the day the only one who can control your stress levels, is you!
I am a Naturopathic Doctor and Doula providing care in the Kitchener-Waterloo area. I have a passion for helping people with their health issues and improving the birth experience for Moms, and their babies. I also have a life long love affair with soccer, curling, and the alto saxophone.