What is Stress?
Stress refers to your body’s response to challenges it may face. It is normal to experience a certain degree of stress during life events and changes, which can include everything from work to physical activity to relationships.
Stress is a hardwired survival technique built into your body as a means of protection.
When triggered, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) signals the “fight or flight response,” which mobilizes you to take action and avoid danger. However, the body can’t tell the difference between the kinds of stress we experience, and the response produced if we’re being chased by a bear is the same as if we’re stressed about giving a presentation at work. Over time, consistent stress signals can cause burnout, both mentally and physically.
Everyone deals with stress differently, and no two people will experience the same situation in exactly the same way.
This is because there are actually two kinds of stress: distress (what we typically think of as “stress”) and eustress (positive stress that can inspire and motivate us). Examples of distress include worrying about paying your bills or anxiety about your performance at work or in a relationship with a partner. Examples of eustress include preparing for an exam that allows you to move forward in your education or career or how you feel before a momentous personal event, such as getting married or buying a home.
By reframing some of what you experience from distress to eustress, you can cultivate a more positive mind-set around stress, which will help you create better stress management skills and coping mechanisms.
This is important because 2020-2021 has been an especially difficult year for many as an ongoing global pandemic has caused us to change how we work, live, and socialize, creating much more stress and anxiety in our lives.
Stress and Its Impact on the Body
1 THE ALARM STAGE
When your body is triggered by a stressor, the SNS activates to protect you from stress and your brain triggers the adrenal glands to secrete hormones, such as cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline). These hormones send signals to the rest of your body to prepare you with emergency fuel and energy. As your stress levels rise and these hormones are continually secreted, many physiological changes occur in the body, such as increases to heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, and sweating.
2 THE ADAPTIVE/RESISTANCE STAGE
After the initial stress response, your body attempts to return to a stable state. But when your stress reactions are too strong or triggered too often, your body will remain on high alert. As a result of this constant stress, your body builds up a resistance to the constant influx of hormones and becomes more tolerant of continuous stressors. This extended release of stress hormones has adverse effects on your body, lowering your immune defenses and making you more susceptible to illness.
It can also cause:
• Mood issues, including anger and depression, lack of energy, and sleep issues
• Increased blood pressure and heart rate, higher cholesterol, and risk of heart attack
• Increased fat storage and disrupted hunger cues
• Aches and pains in the joints and muscles
3 THE EXHAUSTION STAGE
When the body continues to function in this wired state (never fully returning to the rest state), your emergency resources are depleted and your body starts to burn out. This final stage represents your body’s inability to cope with continuously high demands. After all, it’s not natural to constantly feel like you’re being chased by a bear.
This could look like:
• Chronic fatigue
• Decreased stress tolerance (it will take less stressors to make you feel stressed)
Stress and Your Food Preferences
Have you ever noticed the types of food you crave when you feel stressed?
You’re much more likely to choose comforting foods or snacks, like pasta, cake, cookies, or ice cream. What these foods have in common is that they’re considered hyper-palatable – high in calories, fat, and sugar and hard to turn down, especially when stressed.
Eating highly palatable foods leads to the release of dopamine, the feel-good hormone, which is desirable when you’re in such a state. Over time, chronic stress may lead you to seek out that feeling more and more.
However, you won’t get the same reward from the same amount of those foods, leading you to consume more highly palatable foods to achieve that good feeling, which creates a vicious cycle. This cycle can create addictive-like or compulsive eating behaviors that become difficult to control.
Stress management may naturally help support a more nutritious diet as it’s likely to reduce the instances when you may be driven to consume high-calorie or high-sugar foods. Eating a diet full of color and variety will help ensure you are getting the nutrients you need to think clearly and feel your best.
A nutritious diet may also help balance hormones related to appetite and weight regulation, which could lead to better dietary choices and eating a diet more in line with your caloric needs, even when you’re feeling stressed.
Turning to food as a means to calm your anxiety is completely normal, but it should not be the only tool you rely on for stress management as it only provides a temporary dopamine release and doesn’t address the root cause of your stress.
5 Ways to Reduce Stress
Stress can be acute or chronic – both of which can affect your diet:
• Acute stress refers to stress we experience for a brief amount of time. Examples include preparing for a big presentation or being stuck in traffic and running late for a meeting. Acute stress is likely to increase your drive to eat even if you’re not hungry.
• Chronic stress refers to stress experienced continuously over an extended period of time – typically over the course of months. Chronic stress takes a major toll on health and creates a pro-inflammatory state associated with a variety of chronic diseases, most notably obesity.
Stress impacts the body in two major ways:
1. It affects our behaviors around food, driving what and how much we eat.
2. It creates the perfect scenario for fat storage and promotes an obesogenic state.
Here are 5 ways to reduce stress:
1. Practice calming activities, like meditation, and light movement, such as tai chi.
2. Organize your work and living spaces to be clutter-free, peaceful environments.
3. Plan your schedule using a daily or weekly planner.
4. Prioritize your tasks and focus on one thing at a time.
5. Delegate tasks whenever possible if you feel overwhelmed