A guide to managing stress effectively
Article produced by Vitoli also available via viedegrandsparents.ca
We all know more or less what stress is. Whether we have experienced it repeatedly or at a particular time in our lives, we can still recognize certain symptoms. Although stress is a natural physiological process and essential for survival, it’s unique for each of us. Indeed, it depends on the type of stress, our personality, etc. It becomes harmful to our health when we have to deal with chronic stress. That’s why it’s important to know what chronic stress is and its negative effects on our health and to develop ways of dealing with it.
Chronic stress—what is it and where does it come from?
Simply put, stress is nothing more than a physiological “fight or flight” response to danger. When a situation is perceived as dangerous, our body mobilizes our energy by producing adrenaline (accelerating our actions and decisions), increasing our blood pressure and heart rate. At this point, our whole body is in a state of alert/emergency to focus on the danger at hand. This process is therefore natural, but becomes problematic when these symptoms become chronic or repeated with too great a frequency. This problem is called chronic stress.
Chronic stress occurs when there is an overproduction of stress hormones that are secreted over a prolonged and repeated period of time. You will appreciate that this type of stress is considered to be “bad” because it generates harmful effects on our health. So it’s not good to be in a constant state of emergency, as the overproduction of stress hormones causes physical, emotional and behavioural symptoms while accelerating aging.
Let’s not forget cortisol, which is often identified as the stress hormone. Cortisol production is elevated in people with high levels of stress, as it serves to stimulate energy production in the face of stressful situations. Cortisol is also a member of the glucocorticoid family, which is known to induce several physiological responses typical of aging. Glucocorticoids have an impact on our body’s ability to rearrange our neurons (called synaptic plasticity). This makes it easier for us to forget when we experience long periods of stress. They also cause muscle atrophy, reduced immune system efficiency, increased bone resorption and the onset of certain diseases associated with aging.
Negative effects of chronic stress
As mentioned above, chronic stress generates numerous negative effects on our health in addition to exhaustion, weakening of the immune system and reduced efficiency of many other systems in our body. Let’s take a closer look at some of these drawbacks.
Have you noticed that during or after a period of great stress, we get sick more easily—whether it’s the flu, a cold, pneumonia, etc.? Well, this is because chronic stress has a direct impact on our immune system. There is a decrease in the effectiveness of our first line of defence and a decrease in the production of our antibodies. So, to maintain a healthy immune system, it’s crucial to manage our stress well.
In addition, our brain and nervous system are also affected by stress. In the previous section of this article, we pointed out that our memory plays tricks on us when our body is in a state of emergency. This is because stress decreases the production of nerve connections and the reorganization that allows us to learn and memorize (seen above). On the other hand, for other reasons, stress can also “imprint” events in our memory. This process helped our ancestors to survive by allowing them to remember places to avoid—for example, the exact location of a predator’s shelter. Today, this ability is responsible for recurrent thoughts or difficult memories related to stressful situations.
Eating your emotions, myth or reality?
We all remember seeing the famous scene in a movie where the stressed or depressed girl eats a tub of ice cream by herself to get through her emotions. You have probably experienced the same thing or know someone who has. It’s true that stress can actually cause hunger.
Stress influences the behaviour of our mitochondria (little energy factories) by causing them to change certain epigenetic factors and to produce certain pro‑inflammatory mitokines (mitochondrial cytokines). This partly explains the weight gain and fatigue experienced.
However, this is not the only factor that influences the feeling of hunger. A second hormone is involved in stress situations. This is ghrelin. It regulates appetite, but also plays a role in stress management and resistance to chronic stress. Why is there such a close link between hunger and stress? It’s quite simple! When we’re hungry, our anxiety increases because it’s a basic need that must be met. If you go back to the caveman days, man had to work hard to get food and it was a matter of survival.
Today, most people no longer have this problem, but the body has still retained its reflexes. In addition, eating is part of the brain’s reward mechanism to make people want to do it again later. This creates a vicious cycle. When we’re stressed, our appetite increases and our reward centre for food is activated. Eating will reassure us and make us want to do it again. No wonder some people notice that they gain weight in stressful situations.
Tips for managing stress
When we want to manage our stress better, the first point to consider is how we see things. It is crucial not to let the situation control us. When you feel stressed, take a moment to breathe deeply and look at the situation from a different perspective. Here are some ideas that can help you see things in a new light (also called resilience):
- Think about past experiences. This is not the first time you’ve faced a situation like this and come through it unscathed.
- Prioritize calm, proactive thinking.
- You don’t know how the situation will develop. Accept the uncertainty!
- Reduce as much as possible your exposure to media that dramatize situations.
- Our distant ancestors experienced difficult situations in the past. So you’re not alone in feeling this stress and the human race always manages!
In order to manage your stress in the best possible way, it’s important to know yourself well in order to develop or select the tricks that suit you best. Here are some tips you can try adopting in your daily life:
- As mentioned above, accept uncertainty and situations that you cannot control.
- Share your feelings with those around you. This will also help to strengthen your social ties.
- Find physical activities that suit you in order to stay active.
- Practise relaxation and meditation exercises.
- Eat foods or supplements rich in omega-3.
- Limit your caffeine intake (coffee, energy drinks).
- Reduce your intake of refined sugars.
- Increase your antioxidant intake by eating more fruit and vegetables.
- Improve the quality of your sleep.
- If necessary, buy quality stress supplements in consultation with your doctor.
Take time to get to know yourself better so that you can identify what works best for you when you experience the symptoms of stress.
- Abizaid A. Stress and obesity: The ghrelin connection. J Neuroendocrinol. 2019 Jul;31(7): e12693. doi: 10.1111/jne.12693. Epub 2019 Feb 19. PMID: 30714236.
- Al Massadi O, Nogueiras R, Dieguez C, Girault JA. Ghrelin and food reward. Neuropharmacology. 2019 Apr;148:131-138. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropharm.2019.01.001. Epub 2019 Jan 5. PMID: 30615902.
- Bradbury J, Myers SP, Oliver C. An adaptogenic role for omega-3 fatty acids in stress; a randomised placebo controlled double-blind intervention study (pilot) [ISRCTN22569553]. Nutr J. 2004 Nov 28; 3:20.
- Brillon, P. 2020. COVID-19 Maximisons notre résilience. La Presse+ 2020 March 13.
- Ditzen B, Heinrichs M. Psychobiology of social support: the social dimension of stress buffering. Restor Neurol Neurosci. 2014 Jan 1;32(1):149–162.
- Hasan KM, Rahman MS, Arif KM, Sobhani ME. Psychological stress and aging: role of glucocorticoids (GCs). Age (Dordr). 2012;34(6):1421–1433.
- Picard M, McEwen BS. Psychological Stress and Mitochondria: A Conceptual Framework. Psychosom Med. 2018 Feb/Mar;80(2):126–140. doi: 10.1097/PSY.0000000000000544. PMID: 29389735; PMCID: PMC5901651.
- Stenman LK, Patterson E, Meunier J, Roman FJ, Lehtinen MJ. Strain specific stress-modulating effects of candidate probiotics: A systematic screening in a mouse model of chronic restraint stress. Behav Brain Res. 2020 Feb 3;379:112376. doi: 10.1016/j.bbr.2019.112376. Epub 2019 Nov 22. PMID: 31765723.