In today’s fast-paced world, it is very common for many people to feel as though they are drowning in a bottomless sea of deadlines, expectations, challenges and a long “to-do” list. Low energy levels and fatigue are a common complaint and negative mood states such as irritability or frustration can manifest easily under stress. Grabbing an afternoon energy bar or third cup of coffee is not an unusual way of getting a quick energy fix; unfortunately this is only a temporary solution to lagging energy or low mood. Over time, the stimulating effects from caffeine and sugar-laden snacks ultimately fuel low energy and trigger the release of more stress hormones, which in turn deplete nutrients necessary to modulate the stress response.
Stress affects everyone and is considered to be an inescapable part of life. The susceptibility to stress varies from person to person, as does the response to stress. Short bursts of stress to overcome lethargy or enhance performance constitute a positive, healthy and challenging stress response. Hans Selye, the pioneer of modern day stress coined this as “eustress” and described it as a positive force to enhance adaptation mechanisms to stress, as well as to alert the body into making a lifestyle change if necessary, in order to optimize health. This action-stimulating stress gives an athlete the competitive edge or a public speaker the ability to project enthusiastically.
On the flip-side, stress is perceived as a negative experience when it fatigues the body, causes behavioural and physical problems, exceeds one’s ability to cope and in many cases, contributes to chronic disease states. This harmful stress is called “distress” which produces overreaction, confusion, poor concentration and performance anxiety. Neurons in the brain generally “talk” to each other in a part of the brain called the hippocampus. During sustained stress over weeks or months, these neuronal processes are halted which affect memory, ability to learn and affect the stress response.
Why are we prone to stress?
In his celebrated book “Why Zebras don’t get Ulcers”, Professor Robert Sapolsky draws on Hans Selye’s research to humorously illustrate how zebras who live in dangerous places in constant pursuit by predators like lions, are still less likely to develop ulcers than humans are. This is because for animals like zebras, the most upsetting things about life are acute physical crises for which their bodies have adapted well physiologically. Once the immediate threat or stress is over, they recover and return to grazing in the savannah. Physiologically, human beings have also been designed to respond superbly to similar short-term “emergencies” – the “fight or flight” response mobilizes adrenaline and cortisol to release blood sugar, increase blood pressure and heart rate for better oxygen perfusion to the muscles, and once the crisis is over, the body activates immune responses and calming neurotransmitters to assist with recovery from the stress. The harmful effects occur when the stress response system stays in the “on position” chronically leading to a host of symptoms and health problems. In particular, human beings generate the same response simply in anticipation to stress, whether the stressor is real or not and whether or not it is merited. A large body of evidence reveals that stress-related disease emerges, predominantly from activating a physiological system that has evolved for responding to acute physical emergencies, but which remains “turned on” for months in a constant state of stress.
What is the outcome of stress?
Homeostasis is the state in which the body maintains various physiological variables at optimal levels to maintain stable equilibrium. A stressor is anything that can create an imbalance in homeostasis and the stressor is anything that can create an imbalance in homeostasis; the state in which the body maintains various physiological variables at optimal levels, such as acidity or oxygen levels. The stress-response is what the body does to re-establish homeostasis. It has been noted that the brain has evolved to seek homeostasis and the stress-response is mobilized not only in the face of physical or psychological insults, but also in expectation of them. For cognitively-sophisticated mammals such as human beings, what it means is that the stress-response can be activated simply by thinking about a stressful situation. In fact, it is possible to turn on a stress response as robust as if the event had actually occurred based purely on anticipation only! In some instances, anticipatory stress can be protective by preparing the body for an upcoming stressful event. However, when the stress response is activated for no reason or in anticipation of variables that are uncontrollable, the result is anxiety, paranoia and even depression. When prolonged, the adrenal system which is responsible for releasing stress hormones eventually becomes exhausted and depleted resulting in what is called “adrenal fatigue”. The excess cortisol released creates an imbalance and weakening of the immune system. Common symptoms experienced in this state include blood sugar imbalances, insulin resistance, mood and sleep disturbances, chronic fatigue, high blood pressure, diabetes, frequent colds or infection and weight gain. An ongoing stress response or an excessive stress response can become harmful and manifest as autoimmune disease, peptic ulcers, cardiovascular disease or even cancer. This physiological model of stress also holds true in the modern workplace where individuals are under constant multiple pressures to perform and keep up with demands within the organization. Economic upheaval, lay-offs, down-sizing, pay cuts, and increased workloads along with factors such as job dissatisfaction or lack of support are all major sources of stress at work. Occupational or work-related stress is defined by the World Health Organization as “the response people may have when presented with work demands and pressures that are not matched to their knowledge and abilities and which challenge their ability to cope”. A stressful work environment has a direct influence on an individual’s health and wellbeing.
How to cope up with stress effectively?
Recognising the symptoms early and taking steps to counteract or minimize stress at work are important in order to balance between work and family or personal life. Developing the ability to predict stressors and creating an outlet for stress also contribute to a sense of control over the stressful situation. Maintaining a sense of self-control and confidence by using effective communication in the workplace and focusing on what is controllable is a form of emotional intelligence which minimizes stress. Constantly being busy must be counteracted with leisure time and social connections for emotional support. It goes without saying that exercise and good quality sleep are also important factors in maintaining physical and psychological well being. Mindfulness practices such as meditation, deep breathing exercises or yoga help to calm and relax the mind and activate changes in immune responses as well as cognitive function involved in memory, learning and emotion. These practices also enable individuals to maintain a positive outlook on life and become more resilient to daily stress.
Finally, the use of natural substances known as adaptogens enhance the body’s ability to cope more effectively with demands of daily life by providing a sustained sense of calmness while increasing energy as well. Adaptogens are a class of herbal medicines that have been used for centuries in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine to promote a sense of well being. The term adaptogen refers to the ability of these herbs to help with adapting to stress by regulating the adrenal stress response. Examples of well-known effective adaptogens include:
- Ashwagandha, an anti-inflammatory and calming tonic which protects against oxidative stress and prevents premature ageing.
- Rhodiola, an anti-anxiety adaptogen which boosts the immune system and improves mental and physical stamina.
- Holy basil or Tulsi, a herb that promotes longevity, relieves fatigue and elevates the mood.
- Shatavari, the queen of herbs for rejuvenating female hormonal health and normalizing sleep disturbances and insulin secretion.
- Eleuthero, a performance and focus enhancer used to increase mental alertness and concentration and helps in detoxification.
- Triphala, a rejuvenating adaptogen that has antibacterial and antiviral properties and is also known as a powerful blood and liver cleanser.
Incorporating these adaptogens as tonics help to combat stress, enhance resilience to stress, promote a sense of wellbeing and restore vitality effectively.