How Stress Can Affect YouStress can refer to both physical and mental strain exerted on the body. Stress is a normal part of our daily lives. It is absolutely unavoidable and 100% necessary for human survival.
PLEASE NOTE: this is for informative purposes only and is not health advice and does not replace a consult with a health care provider. If you have specific medical conditions, are experiencing pain, or you’re just not sure where to start when it comes to exercise, please remember we’re here for you.
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What is Stress?
Stress can refer to both physical and mental strain exerted on the body. Stress is a normal part of our daily lives. It is absolutely unavoidable and 100% necessary for human survival.
Stress can be both psychological or physical. Psychological stress may be how you feel before a big test, while physical stress could be something like exercise or carrying a heavy box.
The 3 Types of Stress
1. Good Stress “Eustress” – this is what helps drive us to make meaningful change in our lives, be productive and accomplish our goals. For example, a good amount of physical stress is necessary to be healthy.
2. Tolerable Stress – this is when stress may come from something bad, but we are able to adapt to manage it physically and psychologically.
3. Distress – or toxic stress, this is when the stressors become too much for us to adapt or cope and can lead to adverse health effects.
If we can adapt to the stressor, it leads to growth over time. This means we will be more prepared to deal with stressors in the future. On the flip side however, if we are unable to adapt to the level or duration of stress it may lead to a stress overload which can be debilitating.
Understanding the nervous system
To understand the effect that stress has on the body, we first need to understand how the nervous system works.
There are two overarching components of the nervous system. They are the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system.
The central nervous system is composed of the brain and the spinal cord. These structures are the control centers for the body.
The peripheral nervous system is composed of nerves. Nerves leave the central nervous system and connect it to the rest of the body. This allows the central nervous system to receive information from the rest of the body and respond to it.
How the nervous system works
In the peripheral nervous system, nerves that receive information are called sensory neurons. If you were to touch something hot, the sensory neurons will alert your central nervous system.
In the central nervous system, the brain would determine if this is something we want to be doing or if it is dangerous. The brain will then decide the action to be taken based on this information.
In the peripheral nervous system, information from the brain is sent to muscles in nerves called motor neurons. The muscles will contract to move away from the hot object.
It is important to understand that the nervous system links the whole body together. Therefore, impacts to the nervous system can affect the whole body. The nervous system is where psychological and physical components intersect. To take care of ourselves, we need to stop treating them as completely separate and understand that changes in one can have a significant impact on the other. This means that something like psychological stress can actually reach the entire body. For example, changes in emotional stress in the central nervous system could affect our sensory neurons to amplify the experience of pain. Consequently, it is extremely important to manage stress appropriately when dealing with chronic pain.
What happens when we are Stressed?
The nervous system has its own stress response system built in called the Autonomic Nervous System. This system operates out of our conscious control. However, there are many strategies that we can use to affect the system to manage stress.
This system can be broken up into 2 main components:
Parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) – This is our rest and digest system. This is the state we are in when we are at rest/ in homeostasis. Coming into this state will slow the heart rate, lower our blood pressure, and increase blood flow to digestive organs. Overall, it produces a relaxed state.
Sympathetic nervous system (SNS) – This is our fight, flight or freeze nervous system: our life and death response. It increases our stress response automatically. This is triggered when the brain perceives a threat and can increase heart rate and blood pressure, as well as increases in circulation of adrenaline, cortisol, endorphins, blood sugar.
How does exercise (physical stressor) affect your body?
We move into a sympathetic state when we exercise. The application of physical stressors has a huge impact on our body. Exercise produces positive adaptations for the body to perform an activity and with adequate dosage of “stress” we can have lasting healthy changes.
Imagine you are going for a run.
- You will feel your breathing increase and your heart pound.
- You might become flush and start sweating.
- You will feel the burn in your leg muscles as they propel you forward.
These changes are the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) allowing our bodies to respond to the stress of running.
Increased heart rate pushes more blood to muscles and skin for oxygen delivery and temperature control respectively, more circulating sugar to our muscles for energy. You may notice increased muscle tension to spring into action. This is a normal stress response.
After a normal stress response, we would expect our bodies to return to a resting state. Our bodies are built to respond to acute bouts of stress. For example, if we needed to run from a bear or in hunter-gatherer times, hunt down some food, we would need to engage our sympathetic nervous system to give us the best shot at survival. Normally, the stress response in the body should pass once the incident was dealt with, and we would return to our resting state.
In modern times, we do not worry about these types of stressors as often. Instead, we often face another problem, chronic psychological stress. Current threats to our bodies/well-being often present as more abstract issues that may be out of our control or will not pass anytime soon. We can even maintain stress over things that have passed but were too traumatic to cope with at that time. When the problem is not something we can immediately deal with, the stress can become chronic.
How does the Nervous System affect everything we do?
- Prolonged stress/sympathetic stimulation can have negative consequences. Think back to the running example: Running causes:
- increase heart rate
- increase blood pressure
- increased circulating blood sugar
- blood flow to the skin and away from digestive organs
- muscle tension to spring into action
- circulation of adrenaline and cortisol.
All of these things are great for running. And after a run or workout (major physical stress input), these components will generally return to a homeostatic state (relaxed state).
- But what if the stress is not physical, it is more psychological?
- Our nervous system is the intersection between the physical and psychological, therefore cannot tell the difference and will produce the same response.
- Unfortunately, psychological stress can last much longer than a workout, possibly ongoing for hours/days/weeks. This is when the normally healthy stress response can start to severely impact our physical health.
- Increased heart rates at rest feels like a pounding heart and increased breathing rate
- Sustained increases in blood pressure and blood sugar can cause damage to our blood vessels (this can eventually lead to coronary artery disease, peripheral artery disease)
- High cortisol may increase signals of hunger unnecessarily.
- Reduced circulation to digestive organs can cause stomach pains.
- Increased muscle tension becomes chronic soreness, tightness or pain
- You may feel exhausted due to the allocation of energy and bodily resources that are preparing the body to run for your life
Imagine you are having a day where you didn’t sleep well, are having significant work stress and anxiety over relationship struggles. Do you feel that you will be able to perform as well in the gym? Do you feel you will be able to progress in recovering from an injury? How do you think your body will be feeling? The body cannot differentiate between physical and psychological stressors. In these situations, you will likely feel completely spent. The accumulation of physical and psychological stress can happen very quickly when we don’t account for the psychological side of things and takes a huge toll on our physical health.
What if we are dealing with chronic stress over years? With enough overload, this can eventually lead to disease. One study looked at how different measures of work stress affected cardiovascular disease risk factors. Factors such as over commitment (eg. taking on more than you can handle) or effort-reward imbalance (eg. feeling you are working hard with not enough appreciation) were associated with hypertension and blood vessel wall thickness. Stress can also exacerbate symptoms of autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s disease or psoriasis.
We are still in the process of appreciating how much stress affects our physical health. But it is something we need to take very seriously.
- The SNS (Sympathetic Nervous System) and PNS (Parasympathetic Nervous System) oppose each other. We will either be predominantly in a relaxed state or an excited state. If we are continually in an SNS state it can make it more difficult to transition into a relaxed state. Having trouble transitioning into a PNS dominant state may impact our mental health.
- Inability to relax, continual activation of the SNS state, alterations to hormonal circulation at rest can impact mental state and mental health.
- Stress can also play a large role in pain. Pain is a response to perceived danger just like the SNS. And just like the nervous system, it cannot tell the difference between physical and psychological stress.
- It is easy to imagine an increase in pain if you lift something too heavy with a back injury.
- However, we know that psychological stress affects the body on a physiological and physical level as well. This means that psychological stress can exacerbate or even cause increases in the experience of pain.
- If you imagine that you have been unable to sleep or had a terrible day at work, think about how you would physically feel. One might report feelings of achy muscles or soreness, headaches or other discomfort. Both mental and physical stressors can exacerbate the perception of pain in our body.
By working to modulate our stress, we can help to improve our physical health, mental health and even our pain. Taking the time to care for our nervous system will have whole body effects and can impact our current and future health.
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6 Tips to Manage Stress
1. Exercise has been shown to help people transition into a more relaxed state afterwards. Exercise that increases your heart rate will affect the autonomic nervous system. When regularly practiced it will help transition the body into a parasympathetic state.
Greatest benefits to altering this system can be seen with higher intensity exercise. However, if that is not your thing, yoga or tai chi can help with stress management as well.
2. Breathing coaching is another option for people dealing with excess stress. Deep breathing with a focus on directing air to the belly on inhale and a very slow exhale can help. This is because it stimulates a nerve that helps us move into a parasympathetic nervous system dominant state.
3. Cognitive-behaviour therapy/Counselling have been shown to reduce stress as well as related mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression. Cognitive-behaviour therapy is guided by a mental health counsellor. Talking to a counsellor is a good way to work through social stressors that could be affecting your health.
4. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is a type of mindfulness meditation practice that has been shown to help with stress, mental and physical health. This practice focuses on being more present and trying to stop living in the past or future. It requires training for your brain and can be difficult to start. However, the benefits to your health can be great!
5. Good sleep hygiene can be helpful for stress management. Ensuring we are getting an adequate amount of sleep helps to reduce physical stress and allows our body to rest and recover. For more information, see our page on Why Sleep is Important for Recovery & Health!
6. Focusing on a healthy diet can help with stress as well. The gut has its own branch of the nervous system called the enteric nervous system. This is another segment of the autonomic nervous system that links the brain to the gut. This means that eating well can impact our nervous system too.
Focusing on healthy food choices can improve our stress response alongside aiding with gastrointestinal and mental health. Healthy food options may be different for each individual. Sometimes it can take some trial and error but people should avoid foods that cause an inflammatory response in gut. Inflammation in the gut can increase the likelihood of negative mental health effects. Foods that cause inflammation in your gut may be different for each person, so focus on foods that make you feel good and avoid foods that produce stomach pain.
Stress is something we all deal with but it impacts all of us differently. Some perceived threats will affect some people more than others, some coping strategies may work better for one person than another. The trick is to find out what works for you. Coping may look like the previously mentioned strategies or it could be watching less news, drinking less alcohol, taking control with a specific schedule or routine, doing something creative, giving back or volunteering, getting professional help or talking to a friend, taking up a project or getting something done around the house. There is no one right answer, but figuring out what works for you is an essential part of maintaining your health. For those struggling with chronic pain, this may be the missing piece to your recovery.
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