woman showing signs of stress

Problems with Mood or Stress?

By Dr. Pamela Frank, BSc(Hons), Naturopathic Doctor

What is the Definition of Stress?

Stress is defined as a state of mental, emotional and/or physical tension as a result of very adverse or very demanding conditions.  Examples may include having a very demanding boss or a tight deadline at work, working long hours or night shifts, writing an exam, living in extreme weather conditions, or running a marathon.

What are the Top 10 Causes of Stress?

The top 10 stressors in life for an adult, ranked from highest to lowest are considered to be:

  1. Death of a spouse
  2. Divorce
  3. Separation
  4. Imprisonment
  5. Death of a close family member
  6. Illness
  7. Marriage
  8. Job loss
  9. Marital reconciliation
  10. Retirement

What are the Major Types of Stress?

When we use that word, most people associate it with mental stress or feelings of worry or anxiety.  But it can be more than mental or emotional, there are physical stressors as well.  The following are six major forms of stress:

  1. Physical: Your body can be stressed physically by intense exertion such as running a marathon or doing a triathlon.  Manual labour such as working in a factory or delivering furniture or heavy cargo can be physically stressful.  Lack of sleep imposes stress on your body.  Travel across time zones and adapting to different hours can be stressful.  Working night shifts is another physical stressor.  Your body has an internal clock that operates based on daylight hours, your body functions optimally when you work with your internal clock rather than against it. Physical illness stresses your body’s repair mechanisms and immune system.
  2. Chemical: Exposing your body to chemicals, toxins and pollutants imposes a stress on the organs that are responsible for breaking down and excreting them.  Drugs, alcohol, caffeine, nicotine and environmental pollutants such as pesticides and herbicides can tax your liver and kidneys.
  3. Mental: With so much exposure to external input through information technology, our brains can be taxed trying to take it all in.  Add to that self-imposed efforts to be perfect over-achievers.  Access to information can lead to worry about health and disease.  Pressure to achieve in school or at work creates more mental strife.
  4. Emotional: Feelings of anger, guilt, loneliness, sadness or fear place an emotional burden on our psyche.
  5. Nutritional: Eating poorly, on the run, grabbing takeout, wolfing food down at our desk and eating highly processed foods all put a nutritional strain on our bodies. Consumption of food allergies triggers the release of adrenaline which signifies a stressful event. Depletion of vitamins and minerals in our food supply can result in a depleted body that doesn’t function at its best or struggles to function at all.
  6. Trauma: Physical trauma from an accident or injury, a burn or surgery can stress your body’s immune system to repair the damage.  Physical pain or being incapacitated as a result of an injury can add to mental and emotional stress and cause lack of sleep.

How Does Stress Affect Your Body?

The physical effects of an immediate or acute stress include muscle tension, increased heart rate, more rapid breathing, dilation of some blood vessels and constriction of others, diversion of resources away from the organs that are not essential under stress (reproductive, digestive), and toward the ones that are (heart, lungs, large muscles).

The physical effects of long-term stress include fatigue, headaches, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, cardiovascular disease, reduced immune function, poor digestion, loss of libido, joint aches or pains and low bone density.

How Does Stress Affect Your Brain?

The mental and emotional effects of stress include anger, irritability, depression, anxiety or panic attacks, forgetfulness, difficulty with memory, focus or concentration and even neurological disorders like dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

What are the Signs of Stress?

Signs of acute stress include increased heart rate, rapid, shallow breathing, sweating, increased blood pressure and dilated pupils.  Under stress, the body releases two main stress hormones, adrenaline (or epinephrine) and cortisol. Adrenaline release prepares your body to fight danger or run away from it, the “fight or flight” response.  When stress continues, cortisol is produced to help as a more prolonged coping mechanism.

Long-term stress can lead to more physical and emotional symptoms such as the following warning signs of stress:

  • Feeling agitated, frustrated, or moody
  • Feeling overwhelmed, like you have too much on your plate, more than you can handle
  • Having difficulty calming your thoughts and relaxing
  • Low self-esteem
  • Feeling lonely, worthless, or depressed
  • Avoiding socializing, isolation
  • Low energy
  • Headaches or migraines
  • Digestive problems such as diarrhea, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome or nausea
  • Aches and pains
  • Muscle tension
  • Chest pain
  • Irregular or rapid heartbeat, palpitations
  • Insomnia
  • Frequent colds and infections
  • Loss of sexual desire and/or ability
  • Nervousness or anxiety
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Dry mouth and difficulty swallowing
  • Clenched jaw, TMJ or grinding your teeth
  • Constant worrying
  • Racing thoughts
  • Difficulty with memory, focus or concentration
  • Poor judgment
  • Pessimism
  • Changes in appetite — either not eating or overeating
  • Procrastination
  • Increasing dependence on alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes
  • Nervous behaviours, such as nail biting, skin picking or fidgeting

What Diseases are Caused by Stress?

Stress has been linked to all of the major chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer.  The chronic release of stress hormones increases blood sugar levels, heart rate and blood pressure.  Over the long term, these can damage blood vessels, create insulin resistance problems and stimulate abnormal cell proliferation.  Intense or long-term stress can also lead to infertility problems.  When the body perceives stress, it directs blood flow and resources away from non-essential functions like reproduction, prioritizing vital functions and muscles that will aid survival.

How Best to Deal with Stress

Obviously, if at all possible, it is best to remove the source of the stress.  Solutions for that may involve finding a less demanding job, improving your relationships, and asking others for help.  If it’s not possible to remove the source of the stress, then you may find the following stress management tips helpful to relieve your stress:

12 Best Stress Management Tips

  1. Deep breathing.  Whenever you are feeling stressed or overwhelmed, stop for 30 seconds and take 5 deep breaths, all the way into your belly and all the way out.  Deep breathing helps to stimulate the vagus nerve.  The vagus sends signals directly to the brain.  Stimulating the vagus nerve through humming, chanting “Om”, or deep breathing helps to shift the nervous system away from the fight or flight mode, to the parasympathetic or relaxation mode.
  2. Massage Therapy.  Similar to deep breathing, massage therapy has been shown to shift your nervous system out of the adrenaline-pumping fight or flight mode and into the calming and relaxing parasympathetic mode.
  3. Shut down after 8 p.m.  Your body operates on a daily cycle, dictated by daylight and darkness.  Working with that diurnal cycle is less stressful to your system than working against it and helps your body to rejuvenate in preparation for the next day.
  4. Prioritize sleep.  Not only should you shut down electronics, work and start relaxing by 8 p.m., you should aim to be asleep by 10 p.m. to allow time for a good 8 hours of sleep per night. Sleep is restorative and helps you cope with anything that may be thrown at you.  Lack of sleep often drives more self-destructive behaviours like poor diet, lack of exercise and reaching for sugar and caffeine.
  5. Exercise.  If you can’t divest yourself of the source of your stress, you will cope with it better if you exercise than if you don’t.  Even better, exercise outside.  Research shows that “forest bathing” or “nature bathing” lowers inflammation, oxidative stress and cortisol levels.
  6. Remove stressors to your system like caffeine, nicotine, environmental pollutants, alcohol, recreational drugs and junk food.
  7. Avoid food sensitivities.  If you have identified a food that doesn’t agree with you, don’t eat it.
  8. Relieve physical pain.  Use all the healing methodologies at your disposal to relieve pain and address the cause of the problem including acupuncture, Traditional Chinese Medicine, chiropractic, massage therapy, herbal medicine, and nutrition.
  9. Relieve emotional pain.  Psychotherapy is an effective way to address emotional pain and develop strategies to deal with it more effectively.
  10. Support the systems that help your body deal with stress.  Your adrenal glands are your stress glands.  They are what helps your body to deal with stress.  They are what will secrete adrenaline and cortisol, increase your heart rate, blood pressure and blood sugar.  For them to function healthily, they need lots of vitamin C, vitamin B5 and B6, magnesium and zinc.  A healthy intake of these vitamins and minerals can help your coping glands do their job effectively.  The best food for that is the dark, green leafy vegetables like spinach, kale, Swiss chard, rapini, and spring mix salad greens.
  11. Have fun!  Remember the importance of playing and having fun. All work and no play not only makes you a dull person, but it also increases your cortisol and burns out the adrenals.
  12. Stop worrying.  A good friend of mine once said that: “Worry is paying interest before it’s due, if it’s ever due.” Meaning that you may be worrying about something that will never happen, in which case all that mental stress was for nothing.  If you must worry, one way to reign in worrying is to allow a certain “worry time” each day.  For example, 5 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. is your worry time.  At any other time throughout the day if you catch yourself worrying, you stop that thought and defer worrying about it to your worry time.

Is There Such a Thing as Good Stress?

Having the occasional tight deadline or financial worry can actually be a good thing.  It can motivate you to get the job done, work a bit harder or find a more financially rewarding job.  Everyone experiences a certain amount of stress in life, harnessing it to effect positive change is beneficial.  It’s only when it’s ongoing, when you may feel overwhelmed by it, unable to control it, cope with it or feel trapped in it, that it can become damaging to your psyche and your overall health.


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