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Stress – the good, bad and the ugly

Is the feeling of being “tired but wired” familiar to you?

Or maybe you are on the “coffee, chocolate & wine” diet. You NEED a coffee to wake up. At 3.30 the afternoon slump hits and you seek out chocolate for a quick pick-me-up, and then a sneaky wine or two at night to help calm you down and fall asleep.

Squirming a little?

Let’s talk about STRESS today as nothing stuffs your hormones, health or happiness faster than unmanaged or chronic stress.

But first – I want to stress (ha ha) that not all stress is bad. In fact, a healthy dose of stress is needed to motivate you to perform and work at a high level.

The key is to manage your stress so that it doesn’t spiral out of control and set off a series of health issues and hormonal chaos.

I’d like to introduce you to CORTISOL – one of the main stress hormones (the other being adrenaline).

Cortisol receptor cells are found in almost every cell in the body, therefore this hormone can have a number of different actions depending on which cell it is targetting. Cortisol plays a role in:

  • Controlling blood sugar levels
  • Regulating metabolism
  • Acting as an anti-inflammatory
  • Influencing memory function
  • Controlling water and salt balance
  • Influencing blood pressure
  • Sleep/wake cycles
  • Digestion
    …to name a few!

Poor old cortisol gets a bad rap, but as you will soon see it is the chronic activation of the stress response that is the issue.

I could get super nerdy and detailed about the stress response, but let’s keep things simple. Here’s a brief explanation of the “fight or flight” stress response.

Your senses detect a potentially life-threatening situation that the brain interprets as “danger”. In response to this acute stress, the branches of the autonomic nervous system (sympathetic and parasympathetic systems) work in tandem, together with the hormonal system and set off a series of reactions we call the stress response.

In reaction to a stressor, the sympathetic arm – let’s call it the accelerator pedal – will initiate the “fight or flight” response. A series of messages stimulate the release of hormones, one being CORTISOL, and the body is activated to protect us from the danger by preparing us either to stay and fight or to get away as fast as possible – we become faster, stronger, and have more endurance for a short time.

Once the stressor has passed, the parasympathetic arm – or the brake pedal – promotes relaxation and recovery and brings the body back to its normal state.

This reaction is healthy and beneficial when it is turned on AND off.

The challenge is that for many people the accelerator pedal is always on, keeping the engine revving too high. This is CHRONIC stress and the cortisol surge never turns off. This can lead to elevated cortisol, or it may cause your cortisol levels to swing wildly between too high and too low – sometimes within hours of the same day!

Hello hormone imbalance!

The problem is that your body does not know the difference between physical & mental stress, actual or perceived stress, and it triggers the same physiological response.

Unfortunately, the body can overreact to stressors that are non-life-threatening, such as traffic jams, work pressure, family or relationship difficulties, even perceived stressors that don’t exist, except in our imagination, too much intense exercise without sufficient recovery, extreme dieting…

The more stressors, the greater effect on the nervous system. If the individual cannot remove the stressors the more dominant the sympathetic nervous system becomes.

Long-term effects of chronic stress have been linked to:

  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Increased belly fat
  • Changes in the brain, particularly the hippocampus which is the memory centre
  • Insomnia
  • Immune system dysfunction
  • Inflammation
  • Osteoporosis
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
    …wonderful hey!

The GOOD news is, however, that with a few tweaks to your lifestyle these effects can be halted or even reversed by managing your stress levels and finding the “Goldilocks” level – not too high and not too low – for cortisol.

Here are 3 strategies to start feeling a little more relaxed…

  1. MOVEMENT

Find something that you LOVE to do, that takes you outside, that gets the happy hormones flowing. Yoga, dancing, zumba, swimming, walking, LISS (low-intensity steady state cardio), pilates. ANY movement that leaves you feeling better than before you started.  **Beware of adding to your stressed state with too much high-intensity exercise.**

2. MINDSET

As women and mums, we are very good at trying to be everything to everyone, feeling guilty when we fall short of our own expectations and “not enough”. Working on your mindset, practicing self-compassion, choosing to do less to achieve more, will all go a long way to relieving the feelings of stress and anxiety that build up, keeping the accelerator pedal down and the engine revving.

3. MINDFULNESS

Mindfulness is a form of self-awareness training. Mindfulness is about being aware of what is happening in the present on a moment to moment basis, and not making judgments about whether we like or don’t like what we find. When we focus on the present and disengage from mental clutter, it allows us to have a clear mind. It makes it possible for us to respond rather than react to situations, and therefore improve our decision-making and potential for physical and mental relaxation. Ahhh!

Do you need to press PAUSE and take your foot off the accelerator? Then I’d love you to join me at our next mmmPower Your Heart Body & Soul workshop where we focus on the three m’s above – Movement, Mindset & Mindfulness.

WHEN: Monday 18th June
TIME: 7.30pm – 9.30pm
WHERE: The Swedish Pilates Studio, Glen Iris
BOOKINGS: Click HERE (you’ll be taken to Mindbody)
FURTHER INFO: jacqui@heartbodyandsoul.com.au