The term ‘stress’ represents the physical and emotional reactions of our body and mind when we are functioning above our normal threshold. When our exposure to stress becomes excessive it can adversely affect our health, disrupting our hormonal balance, immune resistance and mental health.
The term ‘stress’ can be difficult to define. The Oxford medical dictionary defines it as “Any factor that threatens the health of the body or has an adverse effect on its functioning, such as injury, disease or worry. The existence of one form of stress tends to diminish resistance to other forms. Constant stress brings about changes in the balance of hormones in the body.” Stress is implicated in many health problems from insomnia to dermatitis to IBS to overt anxiety. It can be perceived as ‘living beyond our threshold’ or ‘living beyond our means’. Stress is, therefore, a general term that, if excessive, can impair health and drastically impact on quality of life.
Here we will refer to stress as relating to the mental and physical anxieties that can arise as a result of our own personal resources being superseded by life’s demands.
We have all heard of the ‘flight or fight’ response as a natural instinctive response to stress. The body releases hormones that help us to run faster and fight harder when we are under some form of threat. These hormones increase heart rate and blood pressure, delivering more oxygen and blood sugar to power important muscles throughout the body.They will increase sweating in an effort to cool the muscles, and improve efficiency. They divert blood away from the skin to the core of our bodies, reducing blood loss if we are damaged. And, as if this wasn’t enough, these hormones focus our attention on the threat, to the exclusion of everything else. The combined effect is that our ability to survive life-threatening events is vastly improved.
However, these physiological consequences also have negative consequences. When in this state, we are also excitable, anxious, jumpy and irritable which reduces our ability to work effectively with other people.
Hans Selye identified that when pushed to extremes we react in three ways:
More recent research has discovered the LHPA (limbic-hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal) axis as the neuro-hormonal regulator of the stress response. Whenever we experience something stressful, emotional reactions in the limbic system of the brain trigger the hypothalamus to secrete CRH (corticotropin-releasing hormone).CRH then triggers the pituitary gland to secrete ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone), which activates the adrenal glands to produce and release cortisol into the bloodstream.
Cortisol is the primary hormone associated with the stress response. However, cortisol also plays a vital role in supporting other functions throughout the body. For example, cortisol is necessary for normal brain, immune, muscle and blood sugar function, and blood circulation.
However, excessive cortisol can be equally damaging. Too much cortisol causes abdominal obesity, high blood sugar (“adrenal diabetes”), muscle wasting, bone loss, immune shutdown, brain atrophy of the hippocampus, poor wound healing, thin wrinkled skin, fluid retention and hypertension. Excessive cortisol frequently causes increased fatigue/decreased energy, irritability, impaired memory, depressed mood, decreased libido, insomnia, anxiety, impaired concentration, crying, restlessness, social withdrawal and feelings of hopelessness.
Burnout is the result of excessive stress exposure, leading to eventual adrenal exhaustion. It can be described as:
“A state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion caused by long term involvement in emotionally demanding situations.” (Ayala Pines & Elliott Aronson)
Here are some of the key symptoms of stress:
Prolonged exposure to stress and prolonged suffering with symptoms such as those listed will eventually lead to a depleted immune response. When the immune system becomes depleted, it can result in the onset of more chronic degenerative conditions such as:
Ayurveda sees stress as an aggravation of the subtle aspects of the nervous system that are regulated by a principle known as vata. Vata describes one of the three key Ayurvedic dosha, or constitutions. Vata has qualities of being light, subtle, erratic, sensitive and is easily disturbed by too much sensory stimulation, too much food, too much time pressure and too many telephone calls. It is also aggravated by too much fear and anxiety. All of these effects result in a depletion of the body and mind’s ability to cope with life’s experiences; we become tired, fatigued, weakened.
Vata is responsible for regulating inputs and outputs in the body and mind. It is the regulator of homeostasis in the system to ensure a stable inner environment. Failure of this regulating system, or its inability to adapt can lead to stress and its concurrent pathologies. The commonly defined Ayurvedic symptoms of vata disturbance are:
Such symptoms can become worse for changes in the seasons, dry and cold climates, early in the morning, early in the afternoon and later in life. As time progresses these symptoms flip to manifest assluggish energy, fatigue, lack of enthusiasm, no desire to speak and confusion.
Risks associated with conventional treatments
To effectively treat stress, there needs to be two elements to the strategy. The first is too soothe and calm the surface symptoms. The second is to nourish and strengthen the nervous system so that it can manage stress more efficiently. The approach to managing and alleviating stress must be spiritually-emotionally-mentally and physically approached.
Nature holds many gifts for helping us to manage our daily stresses from simple breathing exercises, to soothing massage, to a spectrum of healing plants that can sedate, stimulate, nourish, feed and/or relax the nervous system. All stress involves some change, and severe stress usually involves some form of ‘shock’ to the system. To find balance means you have to digest the shock and adapt to the stress.
There are many herbs that will benefit and support the body through periods of excessive stress exposure. However, we must also consider the importance and impact that small changes in lifestyle can also make. Here are some suggestions: