How to Manage Stress | Nuffield Health

People talk a lot about stress, but what does
it actually mean? Stress is something that is very much personal
to us and we experience it in different ways. Stress is essentially when a situation, pressure
or change exceeds our coping abilities. Take a rollercoaster ride for example. You
might have two people that go on a rollercoaster together, one person may take a genuine enjoyment
out of that experience. Other people might take a genuine sense of fear and anxiety. The rollercoaster itself doesn’t change but
our perceptions of it will differ. The same can be said for other stressful situations.
Ultimately depends on your perception of that situation that determines whether or not you
see it as a stressor. Of course, the rollercoaster example is an
example of short-term stress, which in isolation may not cause any harm whatsoever. It’s only when stress accumulates beyond your
coping abilities and without adequate recovery, the stress can become a problem. Stress is likely to occur after an accumulation
of life changing events. Those events can be both positive and negative, it might include
a business realignment, a promotion at work, or even something enjoyable such as a holiday
or a Christmas break. What matters is that there’s a change to your
normal routine. When a number of changes to your life happen within a short space of time,
that’s when it can have an impact on your resilience and your stress. We all know stress can make us feel under
pressure, agitated and sometimes overwhelmed. The questions is how does stress affect our
body and our mind and what can we do about it. Within the body you have the central nervous
system, which is made up of the brain and the spinal cord. Within the central nervous system you have
the autonomic nervous system, which is regulating things that are outside of your control. Things
like blinking, breathing, and your heart beat. Within the autonomic nervous system you have
two particular branches. One is the sympathetic nervous system, that’s known as the fight
or flight system. The other is the parasympathetic nervous system, that is the rest and digest
system and although they interact with each other they both have different roles. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible
for increasing the heart rate, increasing blood pressure and increasing blood sugar
to help you perform when stress hits. The rest and digest system is responsible
for suppressing heart rate and bringing you back down to whats’s know as homeostasis. DHEA is an immune system boosting hormone.
Which means it helps stave off the development of lifestyle related diseases. The problem
here is that DHEA and cortisol and release from the same area of the body, the adrenal
gland. This means that when someone is exposed to
chronic stress, without the ability to recover and adapt to that stress the DHEA is not being
released. This means that the risk of disease is increased. Excess cortisol and chronic stress can increase
the risk of stokes and heart from happening. The reason being when cortisol is released
it creates an inflammatory response within the arterial lining. That inflammation could
then lead to an increased cholesterol. If that cholesterol becomes unstable and breaks
off and travels down to the smaller arteries of the heart or of the brain, that could result
in the stroke or the heart attack. Stress can also have an affect on the way
that your brain functions. Normally when you experience a situation or a stimulus it goes
via the thalamus and then into the cerebral cortex. The outer part of the brain is responsible
for high level thinking, such as strategy, executive decision making and creativity.
The problem is when we’re under stress that whole system is bypassed and is goes via the
amygdala. The amygdala is very closely linked to your fight or flight response. Therefore when you are under stress, the amygdala
will result in your fight or flight response, engaging more rapidly and therefore you don’t
have the outer human thinking that you would normally have. As a result you might act in a way that you
would later regret. Now that we know a bit more about stress,
the question is what can we do to improve our resilience to improve our ability to deal
with pressure? When it comes to effective stress management,
it’s important to focus on the factors that are within your perceived control. One factor that is particularly useful to
improve is sleep quality. Sleep deprivation can lead to increase activation of the amygdala,
which is of course responsible for the increase in the fight or flight reaction. By improving your sleep quality you help to
reduce the activation of the amygdala which of course is linked to the fight or flight
response. Furthermore an improved sleep architecture
can help to improve the regulation of cortisol. Low to moderate exercise can be very useful
for stress management. Exercises that place a focus on muscle tension and deep breathing,
such a yoga for example, are very good because they drive up the activation of the parasympathetic
nervous system. Unlike high intensity exercise, which drives
up the activation of the fight or flight system. Therefore going for a light to brisk walk
before bedtime can be a more effective stress relief than going for high intensity run. Furthermore, performing regular exercise can
be a good distraction from the stresses in your life. There are lifestyle factors to
consider too. Nicotine, caffeine and alcohol are often used
as the de-stress technique. However, they actually drive up the activation of the sympathetic
nervous system and in doing so exacerbate stress more than help it. Therefore the casual
cup of tea or the occasional glass of wine to help de-stress after a long day might not
be as effective as we once thought. Taking these factors onboard and modifying
your behaviour will help you to improve your ability to prepare for, react to and recover
from stresses in your life, ultimately improving you resilience.

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