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The Chemistry of Stress

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While stress comes in many forms, at its core it is considered a state of threat to our physical and mental wellness. Understanding how our bodies respond to stress and our own personal reactions to stressful events can help us manage this natural process and greatly improve our quality of life.

Prolonged stress can overwhelm Most of our body’s cells are designed is lowering your immune response, the body’s natural “fight or flight” response, making you more susceptible to stress in the future. Knowing the science can help you to spot the symptoms and take simple measures to overcome difficult times.

Normally, our bodies are in a balanced state called homeostasis. Throughout the day, we encounter many events that alter our homeostasis: a warm room causes the body to sweat to maintain a normal body temperature; feelings of hunger or light-headedness signal that it is time to eat. These are parts of normal functioning. Stress, when experienced in a prolonged or extreme manner, threatens these processes.

Allostasis means to “maintain stability through change.” The concept was introduced by Drs. Peter Sterling and Joseph Eyer to explain the body’s active process of maintaining balance during periods of prolonged stress. When a stressor is experienced, our body’s endocrine, nervous and immune systems respond in what is collectively known as the “fight-or-flight” response. The amygdala is the key brain structure for triggering these survival instincts when our wellbeing is in jeopardy.

Physiologically, stress changes the brain cells found in the amygdala, making them more receptive to continued stress. In situations of chronic stress, these changes to the amygdala can last up to one month after the last exposure to stress. As a result, our stress response is permanently “on,” flooding our body with stress signals. This makes us increasingly sensitive to future stress, big or small.

Have you ever had a deadline at work, or perhaps a family member become hospitalized and then get sick yourself once that stressful event is over? One of cortisol’s many effects on the body turning down a function that is not as necessary during a stressful time. Similarly, we may not feel as tired when we are stressed, or we may have an increased appetite. Cortisol keeps us awake; altering our sleep-wake cycles and prompts us to crave more calorie-dense “comfort” foods.

Although we may not be able to control our body’s collective reaction to a stressful situation, we can modify our behaviour to help ease the negative effects of prolonged stress on our lives. Whether you track your daily routine via a phone app or with pen and paper, being able to identify what triggers stress for you personally is important.

Downtime is key to letting your stress-response system recover. Schedule time for yourself, even if it’s just a 30-minute rest. Get comfortable. Do a few stretches or practice a deep-breathing exercise. Also, while it might be tempting to indulge in comfort food, make sure you are getting enough antioxidants from whole fruits and vegetables. These will help fortify your immune system if it is starting to feel the wear of prolonged stress.

Setting small goals can be just as important as setting big ones, particularly when feeling overwhelmed by stressful circumstances. So, while that apple and walk around the park may not feel like much at first, these steps are instrumental in programming healthy coping behaviours when experiencing stress.

More Insight: Check out this article on the top 8 hormones to manage as you age.

Author: Elizabeth O’Leary holds a Master’s in Psychology and Neuroscience at Dalhousie University, Halifax, NS, specializing in stress resilience and behaviour.

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