What Exactly Is Stress?

Stress gets blamed for anything from weight gain and poor sleep to acne and digestive issues — and from anxiety and fatigue to high blood pressure and poor immunity. It’s a huge problem and the root cause of many common ailments we are experiencing today. We know that too much stress is not good for us — but what exactly is stress?

Fight or flight

The word stress is defined as hardship, adversity, force, or pressure and when our body is faced with it, whether from internal or external sources, a vital response process kicks in. This response is referred to as the fight-or-flight response. Centuries ago, the likely threat a human would encounter to set off this response would be a wild animal, someone screaming at you, or weeks without food. It makes sense, then, that you’d need the strength to fight back or run away fast. When our body is in fight or flight mode, adrenaline and cortisol is released. The heart rate goes up and blood gets pumped to our limbs (away from our digestive and reproductive system.) Pupils dilate to help us see and the mind becomes hypervigilant. The blood sugar levels go up too. In a healthy stress response, the cortisol level rises and falls quickly — as soon as the presumed threat is out of the way.

Cortisol: the stress hormone

Cortisol is often referred to as the stress hormone and is intended to protect us from danger, damage, and inflammation. It responds to light and dark and when functioning normally it follows nature’s rhythm. It’s part of regulating our circadian rhythm — the levels should be higher in the morning and then taper off throughout the day so that by bedtime, when it’s dark outside, our cortisol level is low and we feel calm, relaxed, and ready for sleep.

Cortisol levels rise whenever our body notices a stressor, that being an email from our boss, sleep deprivation, or our own to-do lists. So what happens when the perceived threat is always there? When our phones are notifying us every minute, emails are streaming in nonstop, and the work/life balance is nonexistent? The cortisol level rises and then stays high! This chronic stress is the big issue with stress in our modern society and what can lead to weight gain, insomnia, anxiety, thyroid issues, fatigue, and even autoimmune conditions.

The antidote

Let me be clear: some stress is good and we need a healthy stress response! A little stress might make you perform better under pressure, increase your focus, and help you meet an important deadline. It’s the chronic stress we need to combat and prevent. It takes daily work in today’s busy go-go-go society to carve out time and prioritize rest, sleep, and slowing down.

There are many roads that lead to less stress and we all have to do some exploring to find out what our body and mind needs. Many people like meditation or restorative yoga. Vacations, time away, spa days, massages, and acupuncture are all great for lowering stress. Eating a diet that keeps your blood sugar in check and inflammation down is key for preventing stress from internal inflammation. Sleep is crucial and getting fresh air and daylight helps regulate cortisol too. Adaptogens are great for helping the body adapt to stress and CBD can be the calming, unwinding remedy you need after a long day.

It is also key to get clear on what your values and priorities are so that you can carve out time for what’s really important to you. Life’s too short to stress about stuff you don’t even really care about.

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