We all know what it feels like to be stressed. Symptoms can vary from physical to mental or behavioural changes. The trick to managing stress is to know what your own stress reactions are.

Common physical symptoms of those experiencing excess stress include:

  • sleep disturbances or changes in sleeping habits,
  • muscle tension
  • muscular aches and pains
  • headache
  • gastrointestinal problems, and

Mental symptoms can include:

  • excess worry
  • a “short fuse”
  • forgetfulness, and
  • feeling overwhelmed.

Other symptoms can include becoming easily frustrated, lacking motivation, tearfulness and an increase of unhelpful habits such as smoking, drinking, overeating and social withdrawal.

Symptoms of many pre-existing medical conditions can also worsen during times of stress.

Stress is a pre-historic response rooted in a part of the brain called the Hypothalamus.  An external trigger, or stressor, such as a traffic jam or a tight deadline, stimulates the release of chemicals that tell your body to either stand and fight, or run for its life. This is known as the “fight-or-flight” response.

When this happens, blood is drawn from your brain and stomach and sent to your larger muscle groups. Adrenalin is released into your bloodstream, your heart and lungs work harder, your eyes dilate and you begin to sweat.  The level of fats, cholesterol and sugar in your bloodstream increase, your stomach secretes more acid, your immune system slows down and your thinking shifts into survival mode.

This stress response was designed to protect our hunter-gatherer ancestors from immediate danger such as predators. It has not adapted to the more unrelenting mental stressors of modern lifestyles – such as work pressures or job insecurity, mortgage or rent stress, information overload and family issues.

Our twenty first century lifestyle – too often driven by too much exposure to technology, time critical business and travel, pollutant rich air and nutrient lean food – means our bodies are bombarded with stress reactions and therefore produce chronic overloads of adrenalin, cortisol, fats and sugars into our bloodstream. The consequences are absolutely debilitating.

Our fight-or-flight reflex was designed to allow us to defend ourselves or escape. Of course it’s just not acceptable to punch your boss or run away from the person you are talking to! Yet the same physiological reactions are occurring. Unless the cause of the stress can be dealt with (often by a process of negotiation) – or we learn to manage and calm our stress reaction – our body stews in its own juices!

Tomorrow’s story is all about how to better manage our stress.

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