Address your stress: It’s time we start taking chronic stress more seriously

Stress culture is a hot topic in many Canadian workplaces, and for good reason. Today’s fast-paced world often demands us to push ourselves to the breaking point in all areas of life. But how much stress is too much? And how can you “address your stress” before it gets the best of you?

Author Danzae Pace once astutely remarked that “stress is the trash of modern life – we all generate it, but if you don’t dispose of it properly, it piles up and overtakes your life.” If you believe that your stress level is becoming unhealthy, or if chronic stress is a recurring theme in your life, there are a few simple steps you can take to “take out the trash.”

But first things first: it’s important to know that, if you’re feeling overwhelmed by all the stress in your life, you’re not alone.

A nation united by stress

Chronic, or long-term, stress is among the most endemic health issues facing Canadians today. Stress affects millions of Canadians and has been shown to have serious negative consequences on both our minds and our bodies. An alarming 43 per cent of Canadian adults suffer from stress-related ailments, and up to 90 per cent of all visits to primary care physicians are for stress-related complaints.

Just reading those numbers is stressful.

Research directly links chronic stress to all leading causes of death – including cancer, coronary artery disease, lung disease, cirrhosis, suicide and accidental deaths. Stress even impacts our economy, with an estimated one million Canadian workers absent from work each day due to stress-related complaints. In North America alone, stress-related absenteeism is responsible for more than 25 billion lost workdays each year.

The evidence is clear: it’s time to do something about all this stress that’s taking such a huge toll on our well-being. Before we discuss how to better manage the stress in your life, however, it’s essential to understand how chronic stress affects both your body and your brain.

The science behind stress

The human body is perfectly designed to endure brief periods of intense stress. During the proverbial “run for your life” scenario, your body initiates its famous fight-or-flight response. It diverts energy from digestive and reproductive functions, directs augmented resources to your sympathetic nervous system, increases blood flow to your muscles and mobilizes glucose more quickly to give you additional fuel for action.

When you find yourself in such a situation, your body also releases a surge of hormones – including adrenaline and cortisol (the “stress hormone”). We’re all familiar with adrenaline, which increases the heart rate, elevates blood pressure and boosts energy supplies, but you may be less familiar with cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone that increases the glucose in your bloodstream and diverts it from your hippocampus to your muscles, enabling you to fight or flee much more effectively.

However, there’s a down side to all these brilliant evolutionary adaptations. These reactions, which are hugely beneficial to short-term stress (i.e. during an emergency), have the opposite effect when it comes to long-term exposure to chronic stress. Instead of helping you survive, they actually adversely affect your mind and body – and that strain will eventually put your health at risk.

How you can fight chronic stress

The first, and most important, step you can take when you start feeling overwhelmed by the stress in your life is to talk to your physician or healthcare provider. In addition to assessing, identifying and developing an appropriate treatment plan to address the health-related effects of stress in your life, he or she can also connect you with additional resources available to support and assist you.

There are a few simple things you can do independently as well. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and powerless in the face of stress, but you can take the initiative and change some of the stressors that are within your control. Take a holiday, for example, carve out more quality time with your family or schedule designated “technology-free” times each day.

When it comes to dealing with stressors beyond your control – and some truly are – you can still lower your stress level by reprogramming your physiological response. Popular practices proven to reduce stress include meditation, yoga, Tai Qi, Qi Gong, walking in nature and HeartMath. Over time, and with consistent practice, these techniques are surprisingly effective at changing the body’s physiological response to stress.

In addition to the above, studies show that engaging in regular physical activity and eating a clean, balanced diet can contribute to reducing your stress level. Furthermore, some adaptogenic supplements such as herbs can be helpful in restoring energy and balance. Examples of popular herbs that support adrenal function and can help you combat stress include ashwagandha, rhodiola, L-Theanine and Panax ginseng. If you’re suffering from chronic stress – whether at home, at the workplace or both – talk to your Copeman Healthcare physician to learn more about what you can do to address the stress in your life.

4 physiological responses to chronic stress

1. Changes in your nervous system result in an increase of sympathetic hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. Sympathetic hormone overproduction can lead to weight gain and cardiovascular abnormalities such as high blood pressure.

2. Your immune system can become compromised, resulting in an increased risk of infections and a decrease in your body’s ability to detect and eliminate early-stage cancer cells.

3. Secretion of the hormone zonulin during prolonged periods of stress can lead to food sensitivities, digestive issues and poor gastrointestinal function. These, in turn, can lead to headaches, weight gain, allergies and chronic fatigue.

4. Your body’s increased demand for cortisol depletes its ability to manufacture normal levels of sex hormones, which can lead to hormonal dysfunction and poor sleep quality.