• Dr. Donald Littlewood

Stress 101

Stress is something I find myself talking about more and more as we round into the later half of 2020.

[First, can we unpack that … how can 2020 feel like it has dragged on and been lightning fast all at the same time?]

Stress is often perceived in a negative light, and sometimes it is a negative. But without stress, our bodies would not be able to adapt and change to the times around it and we would be incapable of functioning.

Some level of stress is good & productive. But too much stress with not enough time to rest and recuperate can be detrimental to your health.

This blog will teach you about the different kinds of stress, what happens in your body when you are stressed and a stress reduction tool you can use so that stress is no longer a major player in your life.

What is stress?

Stress is your body’s way of reacting to something that could be dangerous. Historically, this meant something that could literally take your life: a wild animal, starvation, a fire, war, etc. To help your body cope with this incoming life threatening experience, your body has come up with the fight or flight response, more on that in a minute.

Eustress is the good kind of stress. It can be found in many different spaces and many different places. It is generally thought of as excitement or nervousness: exercising, the birth of a baby, a promotion at work, a presentation at work, buying a house, etc. Eustress is a normal and healthy part of life. It provides us with motivation, satisfaction, inspiration & accomplishment in life. And who doesn’t want that?!

Distress happens in two ways. The first is when eustressors last longer than they should and become chronic, or when something negative or traumatic happens to a person. The death of a loved one, assault, trauma, or an accident can all be considered distress. More on how distress affects your body in a bit.

So what is considered a stressor? Well, essentially it is anything that jeopardizes a state of balance within an organism. In the science world, we call this balance, homeostasis.

Stress is essentially anything that disrupts the body’s homeostasis.

The stress response

Our body’s response to stress starts out as a neuroendocrine response, which is a fancy way of saying that it involves both our nervous system & our endocrine system; our hormones. This neuroendocrine response is our body’s way of restoring homeostasis.

The neuroendocrine response we see in stress is called the fight or flight response. This has been well documented in scientific as well as sociological & anthropological studies. Originally, most stressors were looked at in a life or death lens. You had to actually fight the stressor off or you had to run away from it to save your own life.

Thankfully we no longer have to do that, but our system still interprets stress in a similar way. Your body wants to mobilize its energy to places that need it instantly (like your brain, heart & muscles) while inhibiting energy to bodily functions that don’t participate in immediate survival, like digestion & reproduction.

So what actually happens in the body?

At a high level look, we see heart rate, blood pressure & blood glucose all spike. The immune system is immediately activated and then protective measures quickly set in so that our body doesn’t go into an autoimmune response, which we don’t want. The central nervous system is also activated so that we can remember and learn from the event that is currently happening.

When taking a closer look, we see a lot going on. I want to give this information to you in a really broken down way. I see knowledge as power, and it is important to know what really goes on. So let me give you the quick & dirty.

When the body is presented with a stressor the sympathetic nervous system immediately activates and causes the adrenal glands to release adrenaline & noradrenaline. This is what causes the fight or flight response.

Then your brain kicks into gear and creates two hormones called CRH & AVP. They come together to form one hormone called ACTH that binds to a receptor in the adrenals which cause the free floating cholesterol to be converted into glucocorticoids.

Why are these glucocorticoids important? Let me tell you!

  1. They stimulate the creation of glucose so that the body has the energy it needs to deal with the stressor

  2. Essential in facilitating the body’s response to an ongoing stressor, so that we reduce our response when the stressor is no longer there

  3. They work with the learning & memory centres of the brain to promote adaptive behaviour to better manage the stress in the future

Then there is cortisol.

Cortisol is known as THE stress hormone. It is released from the adrenal glands throughout the day, but it is highest in the morning and when you are presented with a stressor. Cortisol has a big effect on the body, especially when it is increased for a long period of time.

Blood sugar & diabetes

One of the main functions of cortisol is to create glucose from protein. The body’s main form of fuel is glucose and so we need it to survive. Back in ancient times, this glucose, along with oxygen, would get sent to the muscles and brain to be used as fuel and prepare for the imminent. Now that most of our stressors are not life threatening, the brain and muscles don’t need this extra glucose and so it just remains in the bloodstream.

A second main function of cortisol is to inhibit the effects of insulin which means that the cells are now insulin-resistant. Insulin is required in order for glucose to get into the cells. This false insulin shortage triggers the pancreas to make more insulin. It’s a big vicious circle, and what we are left with is Type 2 diabetes

Weight Gain

So we know that an increase in cortisol causes an increase in glucose in the bloodstream, and also causes cells to be insulin-resistant meaning they can’t absorb & use glucose. When your cells can’t use glucose, it causes them to think that there is no glucose travelling through the blood. They then trigger your brain to say “I’m hungry, I’m hungry.” You’re not actually hungry, your cells are just glucose starved, but your brain doesn’t know the difference. Cue the eating, cue the weight gain.

Suppression of Immune System

Cortisol is doing all the things, and is also busy decreasing inflammation in the body. Now on the surface, this looks like a positive thing (and it is!), but the consistent reduction in inflammation will eventually suppress the immune system. Can you guess what causes chronic inflammation in the body? That’s right… stress. Chronic stress can make us more susceptible to colds & flus, GI issues, food allergies, and even autoimmune conditions

Musculoskeletal System

When faced with an acute stress, your muscles instinctively tighten to protect your body from imminent danger. But when that stress becomes chronic, your body remains tense and guarded. When your muscles stay tightened, the body will eventually develop stress-related disorders. For example: increased and prolonged stress has been shown to cause migraines, tension-type headaches, and cervicogenic headaches. Stress has often been linked to postural complaints and low back pain.

So I think I’ve beaten this dead horse… chronic stress is not good for you. I’m sure you knew that before, but I really wanted to hammer it home. So know that we know the effects of chronic stress, let’s talk about the best ways to decrease your stress.

Stress Reduction

Let’s get real … this is really why you are here. No one wants to be stressed and if you’re like me, you will take every opportunity to not be stressed. It’s just a fact. So let’s get started on my number one tried and true stress reduction technique.

01 - Diaphragmatic breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing or belly breathing has been shown to be one of the easiest & most effective ways to manage your stress.

So what is it & why does it work?

Diaphragmatic breathing is literally the concept of breathing through the belly. It works by activating the parasympathetic nervous system which does the complete opposite of the fight or flight response. The parasympathetic nervous system is around to promote rest, relaxation & physiological balance (or homeostasis) in our bodies.

Diaphragmatic breathing is something that can be done anywhere and is something that gets easier with practice. To start, you are going to place your right hand on your tummy and your left hand on your chest. From here, you are going to breathe through your tummy trying to push the right hand up towards the sky. Through all of this, your left hand should remain pretty still.

This my friends, is diaphragmatic breathing. Pretty easy, eh?

02 - Dragon’s breath

Okay, so this breathing technique is actually called alternating nostril breathing but I think that is really boring, so I like to call it Dragon’s Breath. This is a fairly common technique that originated in yoga, but has made its rounds in pop culture with Johnathon van Ness & Hillary Clinton.

This one is also super simple, but before I tell you how to do it, I want to give you a teeny disclaimer. If you have a stuffy nose, allergies, or are sick, I would suggest doing this one with caution because you will be asked to breathe only through one nostril.

So to do this one, you are going to plug the right nostril with your thumb and take a deep inhale, plug both holding for 2-3 seconds and then exhale through the left. Then you are simply going to repeat this breathing in through the left nostril.

Dragon’s breath has also been shown to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and counteract the effects of that adrenaline surge your body got from whatever stressful event you have encountered.

Final Thoughts

Stress is just a fact of life. It is going to be there every day in one form or another. The key to managing your stress is arming yourself with the right techniques. That is why I have created a free resource for you on three techniques you can use to bust through stress. These stress management tools are really easy and anyone can do them. So head on over to www.drdonaldlittlewood.com/stress to get your copy today!

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