What Causes Stress?

June 12, 2018

Imagine this…

You are a deer grazing in a field. You and your other deer friends are happy munching on grass in the sunshine without a care in the world. Suddenly, your friend Sally stands in alert and quickly turns her head towards the bushes. She has spotted a cougar peering out from the edge of the forest. You all burst into action. You feel your heart pounding in your chest, your breath is fast and shallow and your muscles are working as hard as they can as you run towards safety. After some time, you notice that the cougar has become distracted with another animal and has ran towards a different direction. You slow your pace, catch your breath, shake your body to release the trauma and settle into munching on more grass. Just then, Sally comes over to you looking quite distraught. She says “we almost died! I can’t believe it! We need to create a security system so that does not happen again, we need someone on watch at all times, we can’t go around munching on grass in the sunshine anymore, we need to stay hidden and be on constant alert!” Over time, Sally starts to lose her hair, she finds it hard to eat grass because she has so much bloating and stomach pain, she can’t sleep well anymore and she feels tired and burnt out.

It seems silly to think about a deer acting this way, but this is how humans act all the time. We dwell on stressful events and carry it in our minds and bodies instead of shaking the stress away and moving forward in our lives.

What Causes Stress?

Stress is the body’s response to a trigger that we perceive as threatening. I say “perceive” because it is not necessarily the trigger itself that causes stress, it is how we perceive it that determines how deeply it will affect us. In a room of 100 people, there are 100 different reactions that can occur to the same single trigger. For example, if a fire alarm goes off during a conference some people will jump to action to help, some people will run to safety and some people will just be annoyed, and there are multiple ranges within those reactions.

This is an empowering thought, because we do not have control over the trigger, but we do have control over how we perceive it and how we will react to it.

Other factors that cause stress on your body are poor sleep patterns, increased sugar intake, too much caffeine intake and inflammation. This is why it is so important to get a good night’s sleep, eat whole food and avoid refined or processed foods, take it easy with your coffee intake and reduce sources of inflammation like alcohol, cigarettes, sugar, and food sensitivities.

What is Stress?

The stress response is rooted in our nervous systems. When a stressor is perceived, our Hypothalamus (the ruler of the endocrine system) in our brain is activated. The hypothalamus then sends a messenger molecule called CRH (Corticotropin Releasing Hormone) to our pituitary gland, which is also in the brain. Our pituitary gland will then send a messenger molecule called ACTH (Adrenocorticotropic Hormone) to our adrenal glands. Our adrenal glands are little triangular shaped glands that perch on top of our kidneys waiting for these messenger molecules from the brain. When they receive the ACTH messenger, they release our stress hormones Cortisol, Epinephrine and Norepinephrine. These hormones change our physiology in order to deal with the stressor. They will increase our heart-rate, make us breath faster and harder, shunt our blood flow to our leg and arm muscles to run or fight and increase our energy. This is all great, unless this system is turned on all the time!

In today’s world, we are constantly exposed to stressors with work, relationships, bills, finances, traffic, deadlines, disputes, you name it! This system is on all day long, and it really takes a toll on the body. These elevated stress hormones cause sleep disturbances, increased blood sugar levels, hormonal imbalances, fatigue, digestive issues, cardiovascular disease, and more.

CRH = Corticotropin Releasing Hormone. ACTH = Adrenocorticotropic Hormone. SAM = Sympathoadrenomedulary. HPA = Hypothalamus-Pituirary-Adrenal

How to Reduce Stress

So now that you know a bit more about what stress is and what causes stress, the question is what can you do about it? Well, the answer is to identify what causes stress, and work backwards from there!

  1. Take time to identify how you perceive stressful situations. Do you often perceive situations as threatening? Is your reaction to run away, or argue or fight, or to freeze and not know what to do? Our reactions are usually tied into what we learned to do as children in traumatic or stressful situations. It is important to observe the thoughts and reactions that arise so you can change them and become more resilient to stressors.

  2. Get a good night’s sleep. It is very important to create a rhythm in your sleep patterns. Try to go to bed at around the same time every night and wake up around the same time every morning.

  3. Eat whole food and avoid refined or processed foods full of sugar. Limiting your sugar intake is not only good for your nervous system, but it will improve your cardiovascular health, ease common digestive symptoms like bloating and indigestion and support your immune system. Choose whole grain over white rice or white bread, choose whole grain crackers over potato chips and cut back on the sugar in your coffee!

  4. Take it easy with your coffee intake. I know this is a touchy subject for many, but coffee does spike blood sugars and stimulates your stress response. 1-2 cups in the morning is fine, but don’t over-do it, especially if you start to feel jittery or anxious.

  5. Reduce sources of inflammation. Inflammation is another big problem in our society. Inflammation has been linked to cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, fibromyalgia, poor digestive function, autoimmune disease, and many more common conditions we see today. Try to avoid or reduce sources of inflammation like alcohol, cigarettes, sugar, processed food and food sensitivities.

There you have it, the What the Why and the How for stress. I hope you found this article helpful and I encourage you to make some of these changes in your life in order to reduce stress in your life!

In health,

Dr. Fiona