When I ask what your symptoms of stress are, what do you think? Stress is something I talk about a lot, it’s a word and concept most people are familiar with. But it is rather vague. What does it really mean? And how do you know what the symptoms of stress might be?
A stressor is anything that your senses tell your brain is a danger to your health or happiness. Your brain and body are quite focused on these two things, and they work in many (sometimes mysterious) ways to help make this happen.
Stress is usually used to describe the way your body adapts and responds to stressors and how you feel during this process. When there’s perceived stress a cascade of chemical messengers is set in motion as your body prepares you for ‘fight or flight’. Most notable are the increase in cortisol and adrenalin. These very quickly alter what’s going on in your body. Raising heart and breathing rate, blood pressure and blood glucose levels. While digestion and reproduction related activities are reduced.
STRESS HAPPENS All DAY, EVERY DAY
Now this is all well and good when stressors come and go reasonably quickly, like they used to when the stressor was something like a wild animal chasing you. These days most Mums have lots of little stressors right through the day, which all adds up to chronic or long-term stress. Humans haven’t really evolved to deal with this. So you’re still responding as if stressors are extremely dangerous to your life, and few and far between. This means you spend more time in ‘fight or flight’ mode than in ‘rest and digest’ mode.
Your body tries to adapt to the stressors and the level of daily stress. However, for most people the level of stress and the never-ending stream of it makes it almost impossible for the body to adapt and cope with these stress levels. When stress continues, eventually there is exhaustion. Modern stress is intense, while modern diets are not particularly supportive or nourishing during these times of high demand.
Human bodies are amazing. Such an intricate dance between all the organs, tissues and cells to manage our daily energy, nutrient and hormone needs. They make strawberries out of sh*t most days.
So what does spending all this time in ‘fight or flight’ mode mean for your body?
The Phases of the Stress Response
First up, you need to understand that the stress response, or cascade, is controlled in the brain in the hypothalamus. When the amygdala senses a threat or danger, it triggers the hypothalamus to secrete hormones. This in turn triggers the pituitary gland to release chemical messengers to stimulate the adrenal glands to make cortisol. This is called the HPA-axis.
The initial phase of the stress response is ‘alarm’. The HPA-axis is ramped up to help support the body to respond to the stressor. You might energised, wired, ‘ready to go’. The second phase is called ‘adaptation’, and it’s where stress has continued on for a longer time – it is chronic. Some people will feel tired, agitated, irritable and craving stimulants in this phase. The HPA-axis is under pressure to regulate and maintain the stress response.
When you keep pushing, and stress continues, the final phase of the stress response is ‘exhaustion’. Hands up who’s there right now? At this point you feel extreme fatigue and the HPA-axis is down-regulated as it just can’t keep going through this time.
You might ask, well how long are each of these phases? That’s a good question, but it really depends on you, your body, genes, and your personal capacity or resources to cope.
Symptoms of Stress from a shared control centre
Just like stress is a vague term, so can be the symptoms of stress. Important to know is that the hypothalamus and pituitary that regulate your stress response, also look after the kidneys, ovaries, and thyroid.
Can you see where this is going?
That unexplained weight gain. The fatigue. Higher or lower blood pressure. Sudden onset of period pain, intense PMS, shorter, longer or heavier cycles. Maybe your thyroid seems to be slowing down – hair coming out more than it used to? Skin suddenly dry? Feeling slow, lethargic, depressed.
When the HPA-axis is dysregulated, there will also be dysregulation in the other organs it looks after too. Your brain is brilliant, it really is, but it just isn’t ready for life as we live now. Technology moves quickly, so do our lives; but the human body evolves relatively slowly. And let’s be honest, it’s still trying to get used to things like margarine, emulsifiers, additives, preservatives and other delights from food industrialisation.
Check out the infographic below and have a think about what’s going on for your body. What’s resonating with you? When did those symptoms start?
If you want to run through a quiz, or checklist of common stress and burn out symptoms, then you need to have a look at the quiz I wrote. You’ll also be able to download a copy of my free eBook – the Busy Mum’s Guide to Endless Energy. Perfect for helping to nourish and support your body during stressful times. The tips and advice are practical, affordable and easy to follow. What you want when you’re feeling exhausted!
There’s plenty of other symptoms of stress that are from cortisol, rather than the change in the hypothalamus-pituitary activity. Some of the general effects of cortisol include:
- Changes to neurotransmitter levels (EG serotonin, dopamine) which increases anxiety, panic attacks, low mood, addictions, alcholism, cravings, and obsessive-compulsive disorders.
- Reduction in size of dendrites and neurons in the brain, which impairs memory, cognitive function, mood, and accelerates aging.
- Because there is more metabolic waste, inflammation, blood glucose levels are higher and nutrient demand is increased, the body becomes more acidic and minerals like calcium are drawn from the bones to help keep blood pH balanced. This means bone mass is reduced and there’s a higher risk for osteoporosis.
- For peri-menopausal and menopausal women, when the adrenal glands are flat out making cortisol, they are less able to make oestrogen. (Which you need them to do as the ovaries slow their production.) So you’re more likely to feel the side effects of menopause – hot flushes, sweats, insomnia. Eeeek!!
- Reduced digestive function. I’ve talked about this a couple of times on the blog. Have a look at ‘Stress & Gut Health’ and ‘4 Tips to Support Digestion During Stress’
- Altered immune function. Cortisol suppresses your immune system (no time to get sick when you’re busy battling beasts!), but if this goes on for a while, then it loses its impact and the immune system strikes back in all sorts of misguided ways. Allergies and auto-immune diseases are the hallmarks of an immune system that’s been suppressed too long. You can read more about my personal experience with stress, allergies & auto-immune disease in my blog, ‘Auto-immune Disease and Stress: My Story’
Alrighty, so you know your symptoms of stress. You understand a bit about why they have arrived. What next?
Having a think about what symptoms of stress you have and when they started is a great place to start. Do you have recent blood tests to compare to older ones? This will help get an idea of what’s changing in your body, some early warning signs.
Naturopaths like me have been trained in reading and analysing blood tests from a functional perspective. So we can look at the basic biochemistry and see how well systems and organs in your body are coping. Rather than having to wait until your results are out of the very wide ‘normal’ range that pathology labs use, I use a narrower range that is based around optimal health and body function. Because I have many herbal, nutritional and lifestyle options to help support your body to balance, this allows us to help get your body back to balance before things get really dire and there’s extensive cell, tissue and organ damage.
i’m here to help you get started
Be sure to download my free eBook to help you support and nourish your body during this time of stress. While you’re doing that, be sure to do the most obvious thing and modify your lifestyle! I wrote a blog about how to avoid holiday stress getting the better of you, but it’s got relevant tips in it for the everyday.
One of my favourites is saying NO! Practice in the mirror or rehearse phrases in your head if you need to, so that you can so no confidently and without guilt. I challenge you to go through the next 2 weeks saying no to tasks, activities or outings that you don’t want to do because they make more work or stress for you. Be sure to let me know how you go!
Feeling overwhelmed and don’t know what to do next?
Perhaps you need the support of a personalised program that gives you greater knowledge and understanding of what’s going on in your body, the changes that need to be made, and how to make long-lasting changes. Need someone to guide you on your health journey, to cheer you on and keep you accountable when you get side-tracked by life? I run programs tailored for busy women in their 40s to help them navigate chaotic moods and changing hormones, so they can feel calm, clear and balanced and make it to menopause without it ruining their lives!
Take the first step to feeling more like yourself, find out more about how this works and how I can support you to optimal health, by making your free 15-minute discovery call using my booking page.