Work and finances and how we feel about them are key triggers of stress in our North American culture. This speaks to the high value we put on productivity in our society. We have high demands on our time, resources and personal relationships for starters. The way in which we live our lives can be a challenge to our health and well being unless we are aware of the factors that can mitigate the long term consequences of stress. As stress is a natural part of life, we can learn to live in better balance with it to the best of our abilities. It has been said that is not the event themselves that are stressful but how we react to them or perceive the events that determines how stressful they actually are.
Hans Selye, was the scientist who researched the stress response thoroughly. He coined the term ‘general adaptation syndrome’ to describe the body’s response to stress and its efforts to maintain balance in the face of that stress. There are three phases of the stress response- alarm phase, resistance phase and exhaustion phase. Keeping it simple the alarm phase is our body’s immediate response to acute stress-our nervous system is activated along with our adrenal glands. We are ready to fight or flight (flee) in the face of acute stress. We might feel adrenaline flood through our body in this phase- think about how you would feel if someone asked you to speak in public on the spot about a particular topic with no warning whatsoever.
The resistance phase is characterized by coordinated action from the HPA (Hypothalamus-pituitary- adrenal axis) to maintain balance in the phase of chronic stress. This a hormonal cascade which can lead to elevated cortisol and epinephrine levels amongst other things. We are still able to handle the stress at this point. We might even function quite well in the face of our daily stress. We will have high energy demands on our body in this stage.
The exhaustion phase sets in when we are unable to maintain our balance in the face of chronic stress- our hormonal reserves are depleted by the high degree of persistent stress and we might have low levels of cortisol in this stage. We will be unable to maintain the metabolic demands on our body. Our body might break down as a result of this phase.
All these responses to stress originated as an evolutionary adaptation to possible danger in our immediate vicinity and increased our odds of surviving that danger when we were cave men or cave women. I don’t believe that our genes have necessarily adapted to our chronic stress levels to the degree that we need them to, to evolve and flourish today.
There are genetic differences in how one is able to handle stress. Some people are extremely resilient in the face of stress. They don’t get anxious about things;they don’t worry about work when they leave work. When researchers looked at gender differences regarding stress, they found that men tend to have a better ability to leave work at work then women do. If you are very resilient in the face of stress, then you can work in a job that might have you faced with highly stressful situations- think emergency room physicians or air traffic controllers. If you are very anxious in the face of stress, then you might choose a job that is less stressful- working in a library perhaps or working with plants in a garden center. The important factor here is your ability to know yourself and choose a job most in alignment with yourself; also remember that you can shift your perception in order to feel better about your daily stress (I will say more about this in a later post).
What can we do to stay in balance with our stress? Because stress triggers our appetite and mobilizes our energy stores we need to fuel up with whole foods that are low on the glycemic index and rich in nutrients. We typically crave carbohydrates when we are under stress. Choose whole grains like whole oats, brown rice, buckwheat, millet or quinoa vs muffins, scones, white bread and tim-bits. Consume fresh fruits and vegetables versus drinking juice. You need the fiber to help stabilize blood sugar, the antioxidants and phyto-nutrients to repair and regenerate tissues.
Eat healthy protein in the form of raw nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, free range poultry and grass fed beef. Choose healthier omega 3 fats in the form of wild fish, mackerel, sardines, shrimp, ground flax seed, walnuts or hemp seeds. Skip the processed food, sugar and caffeine if you are hoping to create lasting energy and reserves to get you through your day. 3-4 cups of green tea daily will provide antioxidants and small amounts of L-theanine- an amino acid that promotes relaxed wakefulness. Make sure to drink a water alongside any beverage that does contain caffeine. Healthy nutrition provides the right foundation for dealing with daily stress. Next post I will discuss some therapeutic suggestions to dealing with stress.
Reference source: The Cortisol Connection, Shawn Talbott, Ph.D.