Integrative Approaches to Stress
Stress can be classified as Eustress and Distress. Eustress occurs when the gap between what one has and what one wants is slightly pushed, but not overwhelmed. Eustress fosters challenge and motivation toward an achievable goal. Distress on the other hand, refers to the maladaptation to stress and the physiological consequences that ensue.
Hans Selye, an endocrinologist, was a pioneer in the field of stress. He noticed that the body adapted to stress in a predictable physiological pattern in an attempt to maintain homeostasis.
Selye defined three phases of stress response, which he called the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS).
- Alarm Stage – This is the initial reaction which activates the¨fight or flight¨ response and releases the hormones such as adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. These hormones enable you to perform activities that you don’t usually do.
- Resistance Stage – In this phase, the body’s defenses become weaker, as it allocates energy to the repair of damaged tissues and the consequences of stress hormones production. The body remains on-guard if the stressors persist and over time begins to weaken.
- Exhaustion Stage- If the stress has been persistent for longer periods, or the body is under chronic ongoing stress, one’s adaptive energy becomes depleted. This results in burnout or stress overload, and can lead to health problems.
We are well designed to handle the acute stressors of life (i.e. using ¨fight or flight¨ survival mechanisms). Unfortunately, in modern society many of us have chronic ongoing stress verging on the exhaustion phase. This ongoing stress has resulted in a myriad of psychological, physical and biochemical imbalances, resulting in chronic diseases.
What changes can you make to reduce your stress?
It’s important to adopt a holistic approach to stress reduction, which includes three components: psychological, structural and biochemical.
Psychological (emotional) stress
In many cases emotional stress is self-imposed and can usually be addressed by reframing the precipitating events or situations. Some things you can do include:
- Setting 15 minutes aside to relax in a dark room and meditate.
- Go for a 15 minute walk outside.
- Receive acupuncture.
(Chenoweth, 2011) (Eshkevari, 2012)
Structural (physical) stress
Many of us are susceptible to overuse injuries and postural strain. These can be managed by:
- 15 minutes of self-myofascial release (SMR) and stretching daily.
- Having regular bodywork (massage and chiropractic).
- Paying attention to ergonomics in order to avoid stress and possibly cumulative trauma disorders.
Biochemical (nutritional) stress
Most people don’t think of poor nutrition or dietary habits as a stressor; however, a diet high in refined carbohydrates, omega 6 fatty acids and processed foods increases inflammation and taxes the body’s detoxification systems (i.e. liver and kidneys). Nutritional stress can also come from not eating adequate meals or balancing macronutrients (which is common in those who eat a low carbohydrate diet). Some ways to reduce nutritional stress can include:
- Reducing caffeine intake. Caffeine stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, which increases the stress response.
- Eating regular meals.
- Drinking more water.
(Kiecolt-Glaser, 2010) (Ping et al. 2012) (Judelson et al., 2008)
Two additional lifestyle factors that can decrease overall stress include:
- Getting optimum sleep (7-9 hours).
- Laughing more.
Sleep deprivation adversely affects cortisol and growth hormone secretion. In addition, poor sleep hygiene has been linked to impaired attention and working memory, motivation and decision-making.
(Alhola, P and Polo-Kantola, 2007) (Samkoff & Jacques, 1991) (Vgontzas et al. 1999)
Laughter appears to reduce serum levels of cortisol, epinephrine, and growth hormone. These biochemical changes have implications for the reversal of the neuroendocrine and classical stress hormone response.
(Berk et al., 1989)
In summary, creating a less stressful life should be a holistic process that takes into consideration psychological, structural and biochemical stressors
To manage your stress this year, aim to eat well, sleep more, and laugh often.
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Berk LS, Tan SA, Fry WF, Napier BJ, Lee JW, Hubbard RW, Lewis JE, Eby WC. Neuroendocrine and stress hormone changes during mirthful laughter.
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Ping, Jie; Lei, You-ying; Liu, Lian; Wang, Ting-ting; Feng, Ying-hong; Wang, Hui. Inheritable stimulatory effects of caffeine on steroidogenic acute regulatory protein expression and cortisol production in human adrenocortical cells. Chemico-Biological Interactions. Jan 2012, Vol. 195 Issue 1, p68-75. 8p.
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Selye, H. The Stress of Life. New York. McGraw-Hill; 1976.
Vgontzas AN, Mastorakos G, Bixler EO, Kales A, Gold PW, Chrousos GP. Sleep deprivation effects on the activity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal and growth axes: potential clinical implications. Clin Endocrinol (Oxf). 1999 Aug;51(2):205-15.