#Health: Managing acute and chronic stress

Hello All & seasons greetings!

I’m back again, and with a big topic – Stress! A very relevant subject at this time of year, where all the merriness also brings along a lot of stress.

“Stress is the health epidemic of the 21st century”

World Health Organisation.

The information in this article comes from personal experience and a shed-load of research. I’ve dealt with medically diagnosed chronic stress and adrenal fatigue because I tend to keep stress bottled-up inside, which is so unhealthy and something I’m consciously working on. 

I’m not unique in this experience, stress is universal and also necessary in life (to some degree). The problem is stress is so prevalent in our daily lives, it can be easy to ignore it or just assume as its part of life it’s something that cannot be changed. As outsiders we might even belittle others who are suffering – does the term “take a chill pill” ring a bell? 

The effects of stress can have life-changing emotional, physical, and mental consequences, including weight gain or loss, panic attacks, anxiety, and depression. According to Cleveland Clinic, stress is linked to six of the leading causes of death, being cancer, heart disease, cirrhosis of the liver, lung ailments, accidents, and suicide. 

I believe we need to become more aware of stress, teach ourselves (and importantly our children) how to deal with it, and not treat the subject so lightly. 

As I always say to manage anything, you first need to understand it. So let’s get to know our body a little better and explore the physical change in the body that occurs when stressed, without getting too technical. ) Then I will look closely at two different types of common stress (acute and chronic) and how to manage each and spot warning signs. If you are after a quick read, just jump straight down to the key takeaways at the bottom. 

What is our body doing?

Stress is as natural as breathing because it’s controlled by the same part of our body! The autonomic nervous system (ANS) controls all our involuntary functions like digestion, heartbeat, body temperature, breathing etc. Stress is helpful (even life-saving) when we are in dangerous situations. 

The ANS will interpret information received from our brain about changes to our external and internal environment, and stimulate either the sympathetic nervous system or the parasympathetic nervous system – depending on how it interprets the data. 

Sympathetic Nervous System – a.k.a Fight and Flight – a.k.a the accelerator

The Sympathetic Nervous System prepares your body for action by signalling the adrenal gland to release adrenaline into the bloodstream. This surge of hormones directs blood flow to only organs vital in an emergency. Your heart will beat faster, your sight and hearing will become sharper, and your lungs will open wide to allow you to breath deeper. It will also trigger the release of blood sugar and fats from “storage” to give you more energy to leg it away from the danger.

Parasympathetic Nervous System – a.k.a Rest and Digest – a.k.a the chill pill

The Parasympathetic Nervous System cools things off after stress by slowing your heart rate and increasing flow back to your other organs, like the bladder and digestive organs. It also manages our functions in “normal” situations and helps prepare the body for the next attack by storing energy (fat) and restoring body tissues. 

Stress, the signs, and tips

When managing stress, it’s essential to realise it is not as easy as being stressed or not stressed. There are many different types of stress, varying in intensity and potential damage. Here we are looking at two specific types – acute and chronic, each with its own cause, side effects, and management tips. 

Acute Stress

What is it?

The most common type, acute stress is short-term and is caused by our day-to-day demands and pressures, past events, current situations, or anticipation of future events. It can be as mundane as rushing to an appointment, forgetting to buy eggs or arguing with a family member. It can also come from a much more pleasant situation like the excitement of a date.

Being short in nature means it is not prolonged enough to cause extensive damage to the body and can be quite easily managed when you pay attention to the signs.

Negative signals to watch out for:

  • Emotional: Irritability and anger
  • Mental: Anxiety and irrational thinking
  • Physical: Muscular tension in the neck, back, or jaw and bowel problems

Managing acute stress

In moments of negative acute stress try ‘Awareness and Reframing’.

  • First, notice when you are entering a stressed state or negative pattern of thinking.
  • Take 30 seconds alone to breathe deeply (I sometimes sit on top of the toilet to do this).
  • Then mentally step outside yourself and objectively consider the whole situation.
  • Ask yourself if the thoughts or assumptions you are making accurate? Is there another way to interpret the same situation? If stressed by someone else, put yourself in their shoes and consider their position too – perhaps they having a bad day. And ask if this reaction is going to serve you well or make things worse?
  • Finally, replace your thoughts with gentler positive ones and remind yourself the situation is likely fleeting. And think of the bigger picture of life, this world, and your goals.

It may take a little time to master the ‘Awareness and Reframing’ technique (and arguably it is not always possible in the heat of a moment). But I encourage you to give it a go if you find you are stressed on a regular, daily basis. It is an incredibly powerful habit and over time will make a massive impact on your life.

Chronic Stress

What is it?

A feeling of constant worry that is wearing your body down. You feel tired and anxious about many things like family, health, finances, career, etc. Instead of short-term (like Acute Stress) it is a prolonged feeling because your Parasympathetic Nervous System is never triggered to balance your hormones and encourage rest.

Negative signals to watch out for:

Emotional: Helplessness, teary/sadness, and negativity
Mental: Persistent tiredness, depression, anxiety, and concentration impairment
Physical: Consistent illness, headaches, weight gain, and sleep problems

Managing chronic stress

This is going to sound like a cop-out but honestly, it is all about diet and movement! Here’s why. Typically if you have chronic stress, you are not making good lifestyle choices; probably picking unhealthy food and lack of movement in your day.

The key is recognition and determination to change your behaviours and responses. As they say, you might not be able to improve a situation, but you can change your reaction to it. The most impactful action you can take is movement. The American Psychology Association state that physical activity naturally boosts your body’s production of feel-good endorphins that help in treating mild forms of depression and anxiety. The APA also suggests eating a healthy diet. Both of which will also help with the quality of your sleep.

Chronic stress is the type that will lead to serious health problems, therefore if it continues for an extended period, or interfere with daily living, reach out to loved ones and/or licensed mental health professional.

Bonus tip!

I mentioned in a previous post an activity called stress journalling. I will reiterate it here because it is such a simple but powerful tool! For one week make a small memo of each stress (big and small) that occurs, and rank it out of 5 by the level of stress. For example, woke up late – 4, burnt toast – 2, traffic – 3…etc. By the end of the week look back to see if you can see any patterns. When I did this task, I was shocked to see those weekday mornings made up 80% of my stress in a day and those stressors! From this awareness, I changed up my morning routine and was able to reduce my levels of stress considerably.

The key takeaways

  • Stress can be useful because it prepares the body for danger – so we should not aim to eliminate stress completely from our lives!
  • Stress comes from our perception of situations – so if we were to look at situations differently, we could reduce our natural stress reaction
  • Physical changes occur in our body – by being aware of these changes, we can begin to manage them
  • Healthy eating and some type of movement every day helps you to feel good and improve sleep – all essential when managing stress.

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