Is Stress Normal? Yes, But It’s Complicated
Nina Zorfass, IIN Content Editor
What is stress?
Stress as we know it today is a relatively modern term and has become a “normal” part of our everyday lives. It refers to the body’s response to any change or adjustment, whether in the environment, thoughts, or physical body. This response can be physical, mental, or emotional, and it’s usually associated with common changes or adjustments. Examples include a looming work deadline, an argument with a friend, an unexpected health diagnosis, or a global pandemic.
When we feel stressed, our bodies react – a racing heartbeat, sweaty palms, shallow breathing, and maybe even an upset stomach. When stress becomes chronic – feelings of overwhelm day in and day out – these physical responses become less noticeable, but the internal impacts of such stress can result in major consequences to our well-being.
The stress response is not perfect.
How our bodies react to stress today is not necessarily how nature intended it. Our “fight or flight” response initiated by the nervous system tells us that we are in imminent danger. The release of stress hormones, namely adrenaline and cortisol, tells the body to preserve as much energy as possible to fight off the “threat,” which means shuttling blood away from our digestive and immune systems and instead toward our limbs to literally fight or run away very quickly.
Unfortunately, our body cannot tell the exact difference between imminent danger and constant exposure to modern-day stressors. Biologically, this is a good thing because we would want this response to occur if we were indeed threatened by someone or something. But more often than not, the modern-day stress response is triggered due to our perceptions of stress in our environment, which can be extremely detrimental to our health.
Health impacts of stress.
When we experience chronic stress, there is a steady release of stress hormones, leading to increased inflammation that can harm our health in unmistakable ways, from headaches, fatigue, chest pain, mood swings, and trouble sleeping to mental illness, cancer, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and cardiovascular dysfunction.
When we experience stress, it’s common to have trouble sleeping, and multiple sleepless nights can exacerbate feelings of stress, perpetuating a vicious cycle. Lack of sleep can decrease your performance the following day, affecting your focus as well as your mood. Over time, continuous lack of sleep contributes to poor blood sugar control, increased food cravings, and increased risk for diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure.
Chronic stress can also lead to the development of mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression, due to cortisol remaining elevated in the bloodstream. Cortisol is meant to peak in the morning upon waking and slowly decrease throughout the day. When cortisol sticks around because the “fight or flight” response is continuously activated, this natural decrease may not happen and could affect the production of serotonin – the “feel good” neurotransmitter – in the brain. With heightened cortisol and decreased serotonin, feelings of anxiety and depression are much more likely to develop.
Stop stress in its tracks.
Stressful situations are inevitable, but the good news is that managing stress effectively is absolutely possible. Consider this: Not all stress is bad. Eustress refers to situations where we feel stress, but it is motivating in nature or produces a positive outcome. Creating a presentation at work that could lead to a potential promotion, deciding to marry your partner, or studying for a class you are taking for personal development are all examples of eustress that may produce feelings of stress and yet are viewed as beneficial to our well-being.
Distress, on the other hand, is the stress we all know and need to find ways to work through on a daily basis. Beth Romanski, Integrative Nutrition Health Coach and director of professional and continuing education at the Maryland University of Integrative Health (MUIH), one of IIN’s educational partners, knows all too well how stress affects her mood and well-being, especially during a global pandemic.
She shared her five most impactful tips for staying healthy amid times of high stress, including focusing on gratitude, limiting social media and turning off the news, scheduling time to worry, practicing the “pause,” and keeping in mind what you can control. For Romanski, this last tip in particular is important. If something that is causing you anxiety or stress is within your control, she emphasizes that, “the power is within you to create the life you want, and hiding behind your excuses will only continue to hold you back from the health and happiness you deserve.” These are powerful words, and they’re true! To manage your experience of stress, remember you have empowering control over how you react and how you move forward.
Even if you only incorporate one of Romanski’s tips into your routine today, such as blocking time on your calendar to deal with stressors instead of intermittently throughout the day, it will soon become second nature. Over time, you’ll be better able to incorporate more stress-management techniques into your behavior and thinking, leading to lower levels of stress and a healthier mind and body.
For even more information about stress, its impact on our health, and how to deal with the effects on our diet and lifestyle, download our free Stress 101 Guide. Just as we take a holistic approach to addressing health, managing stress requires similar thinking!