Stres kick-starts physical, emotional, and intellectual change in your body. Stress management training can help your body to manage these changes and reduce the impact of stress on your wellbeing and productivity.
What is stress?
Stress is a psychological and physiological response to a perceived threat or demand. In modern society, demand is the primary source, especially with the mixed and multifaceted demands of relationships, marriage, children, career, neverending contact with media, finances, home, and personal needs. Juggling these often competing demands creates a tremendous buildup of stress, which has a complex range of effects involving a range of cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and physiological processes.
The perception of stress is subjective, and the experience of stress varies widely among individuals. Common easy-to-perceive stressors include life events such as divorce, financial problems, or the death of a loved one; work-related stressors such as job demands, job insecurity, or conflict with coworkers; and environmental stressors such as noise, pollution, or traffic.
Less easy to acknowledge are the every day stressors. The small demands on your time and attention caused by the burden of constant choice the chaos and noise of family life, traffic, the inability to find balance between work, home, and yourself, and the burden of too many possessions to organize or maintain.
When a person perceives a stressor, the hypothalamus in their brain activates the sympathetic nervous system, leading to the release of stress hormones such as adrenaline, also called epinephrine, and cortisol. These hormones trigger a range of physiological responses, including increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, and heightened alertness.
While acute stress can be beneficial in preparing the body to respond to a threat, chronic stress can have negative effects on physical and mental health. Chronic stress has been linked to a range of health problems, including cardiovascular disease, depression, anxiety, and impaired immune function.
Treatment for stress often involves identifying and addressing the underlying stressors, developing healthier coping strategies, and learning relaxation techniques such as meditation or deep breathing exercises. In some cases, medication or psychotherapy may be recommended.
What Happens to the Body During Stress?
During stress, the body undergoes a range of physiological changes in response to a perceived threat or demand. These changes are designed to prepare the body to respond to the stressor, either by fighting or fleeing. This is useful if the thing you’re responding to is actually a threat, but not helpful when you’re feeling stress because of the demands of every day life.
One of the key changes that occurs during stress is the activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The hypothalamus releases corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH), which in turn stimulates the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH then travels through the blood to the adrenal glands, where it triggers the release of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline.
Cortisol is a steroid hormone that increases blood sugar levels to fuel your muscles, enhances metabolism to fuel muscles, and suppresses the immune system, digestion, and all activities that are low priority if you’re being chased by a tiger. Adrenaline, also known as epinephrine, increases heart rate, elevates blood pressure, and dilates the airways in the lungs. These things also prepare you for active fleeing from danger, again not useful if you’re sitting at a desk staring at a computer.
Other physiological changes that occur during stress include increased respiration rate, dilation of the pupils, increased muscle tension, and decreased digestive activity. These changes are all part of the body’s “fight or flight” response, designed to prepare the body to respond quickly to a perceived threat specifically by running fast, or fighting both of which are high exertion activities.
Your body is designed for bursts of acute stress with an active resolution, but modern society is geared more toward chronic, ongoing, never-resolving stress that is impossible to run away from. Chronic stress has been linked to a range of health problems, including cardiovascular disease, depression, anxiety, and impaired immune function.
Treatment for stress often involves identifying and addressing the underlying stressors, developing coping strategies to manage stress, and learning relaxation techniques such as meditation or deep breathing exercises. In some cases, medication or psychotherapy may be recommended.
Physical symptoms of chronic stress can vary widely among individuals and can affect different systems of the body. Some common physical symptoms of stress include:
- Increased heart rate and blood pressure
- Rapid breathing or hyperventilation
- Muscle tension or pain, including headaches and back pain
- Fatigue or weakness
- Gastrointestinal problems, including nausea, diarrhea, or constipation
- Changes in appetite or weight
- Insomnia or other sleep disturbances
- Skin problems, including acne or eczema
- Sweating or hot flashes
- Decreased libido or sexual dysfunction
- Immune system suppression, leading to an increased risk of infections.
These physical symptoms are often accompanied by emotional symptoms, including anxiety, irritability, anger, and depression.
These physical symptoms can also be caused by a wide range of other medical conditions, so it is important to see a healthcare provider to rule out underlying medical issues. If stress is identified as the underlying cause, treatment may include stress management techniques, such as mindfulness, exercise, or relaxation techniques, as well as counseling or therapy to address emotional or behavioral factors contributing to the stress. In some cases, medication may also be prescribed.
Stress can lead to emotional and mental symptoms like:
Chronic stress has a significant impact on emotional and mental health, and can lead to a range of symptoms, including:
- Anxiety: Worry, nervousness, or fear that is out of proportion to the situation and interferes with daily activities.
- Depression: Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and loss of interest or pleasure in activities that were once enjoyable.
- Irritability: An increased tendency to be easily annoyed, frustrated, or angry, even in response to minor stressors.
- Mood swings: Rapid and often unpredictable changes in mood, including highs and lows.
- Poor concentration: Difficulty focusing, paying attention, or remembering things.
- Memory problems: Difficulty recalling information or events.
- Fatigue: Persistent feelings of tiredness or low energy, even after getting adequate rest.
- Insomnia: Difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up too early.
- Social withdrawal: Avoiding social activities or isolating oneself from others.
- Substance abuse: Using alcohol, drugs, or other substances as a way of coping with stress.
These emotional and mental symptoms of stress can be overwhelming and can have a significant impact on a person’s quality of life. It is important to seek help from a mental health professional if symptoms persist or interfere with daily functioning. Treatment may include psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of both, as well as stress management techniques to reduce the impact of stress on emotional and mental health.
Often, people with chronic stress try to manage it with unhealthy behaviors, including:
People with chronic stress may turn to unhealthy behaviors as a way of coping with the overwhelming and persistent nature of their stress. Some of these unhealthy behaviors include:
- Substance abuse: Using alcohol, drugs, or tobacco as a way of coping with stress.
- Overeating: Food is an easy source of comfort or distraction from stress, which can lead to weight gain and associated health problems.
- Poor nutrition: Eating a diet high in sugar, fat, and processed foods, which can exacerbate stress and contribute to health problems.
- Lack of physical activity: Failing to engage in regular exercise, which can lead to weight gain, muscle tension, and other health problems.
- Social isolation: Withdrawing from social activities and relationships as a way of avoiding stress or seeking solitude.
- Procrastination: Putting off important tasks and responsibilities as a way of avoiding stress, which can lead to increased stress and anxiety over time.
- Poor sleep habits: Failing to get adequate sleep, which can exacerbate stress and lead to a range of physical and mental health problems.
These unhealthy behaviors can create a cycle of stress and negative health outcomes, making it even more difficult to manage chronic stress. It is important to seek help from a healthcare provider or mental health professional to develop healthy coping strategies for managing stress. Treatment may include stress management techniques, such as mindfulness, meditation, or relaxation exercises, as well as therapy or medication to address any underlying mental health conditions.
How is Stress Diagnosed?
Stress is not a medical condition that can be diagnosed through a specific test or exam. Instead, healthcare providers and mental health professionals may use a combination of tools and assessments to evaluate the presence and severity of stress.
The first step in diagnosing stress involves a comprehensive medical and psychological evaluation, which may include a physical exam, review of medical history, and assessment of symptoms. The healthcare provider or mental health professional may also ask about recent life events, work and home environments, and social support networks to understand the potential sources of stress.
To further evaluate the impact of stress on physical and mental health, the healthcare provider may order blood tests or other diagnostic tests to rule out other medical conditions that can mimic the symptoms of stress. Additionally, they may use standardized questionnaires or screening tools to evaluate the presence and severity of anxiety or depression, which are common emotional symptoms associated with stress, but which can occur without stress as well.
Once stress is diagnosed, the healthcare provider or mental health professional will work with the individual to develop a personalized treatment plan. This may include stress management techniques, such as relaxation exercises, mindfulness, or cognitive-behavioral therapy, as well as medication to manage symptoms of anxiety or depression. In some cases, the healthcare provider may also refer the individual to additional resources, such as support groups or community programs, to provide additional support in managing stress.
What Can You Do To Relieve Stress?
There are many strategies for stress relief that can be effective in managing the physical, emotional, and mental symptoms of stress. Some of these strategies include:
- Mindfulness: Practicing mindfulness meditation or other mindfulness techniques can help reduce stress and anxiety by promoting a greater sense of calm and relaxation. This doesn’t have to be hours and hours, just 3-5 minutes of mindfulness meditation per day can have significant benefits.
- Exercise: Engaging in regular physical activity can help reduce stress by releasing endorphins, promoting relaxation, and improving overall physical health. Also, by choosing something physical that makes you happy, like dancing, or golfing, can also bring you joy.
- Relaxation techniques: Techniques such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or visualization can help reduce stress and promote relaxation. There are a wide variety of free and paid resources and apps available to help with this.
- Social support: Building and maintaining strong relationships with friends and family can provide a source of emotional support and reduce feelings of isolation and stress.
- Time management: Learning to manage time effectively and prioritize tasks can help reduce feelings of overwhelm and stress related to work or other responsibilities. Try choosing your biggest most impactful task every day and doing that first thing in the morning before you do low level tasks like checking email.
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on changing negative thought patterns and behaviors that contribute to stress and anxiety. It is very action-oriented and much less talk-oriented.
- Medication: In some cases, medication may be prescribed to manage symptoms of anxiety or depression associated with chronic stress.
- Mind-body techniques: Techniques such as yoga, tai chi, or acupuncture can help promote relaxation, balance stress hormones, and reduce both the physical and emoational feelings of stress.
- Adequate sleep: Getting enough sleep is crucial for reducing stress and maintaining overall physical and mental health.
- Healthy lifestyle choices: Eating a balanced diet, reducing alcohol and caffeine intake, and avoiding tobacco and drug use can all help reduce the impact of stress on physical and mental health.
These strategies can be used alone or in combination to effectively manage stress and improve overall well-being. It is important to work with a healthcare provider or mental health professional to develop a personalized treatment plan that is tailored to individual needs and goals.
What Are Some Ways to Prevent Stress?
While it is impossible to completely prevent stress, there are some strategies that can help reduce the risk of experiencing chronic stress. These strategies include:
- Self-care: Engaging in regular self-care activities, such as exercise, hobbies, or social activities, can help promote relaxation and reduce stress.
- Time management: Learning to manage time effectively and prioritize tasks can help reduce feelings of overwhelm and stress related to work or other responsibilities. Try choosing the most important work-related activity and doing that first thing in the morning before you check email or do other necessary but lower priority tasks. At home, try the same technique. Do the biggest and most impactful thing first before you do the little things that build up every day.
- Setting boundaries: Learning to say “no” to requests or obligations that are not essential can help reduce stress related to over-commitment. Try keeping track of one “no” per week to make sure you’re taking out at least one non-essential, non-interesting thing. Maybe this will give you room to say “yes” to something that brings you joy.
- Social support: Building and maintaining strong relationships with friends and family can provide a source of emotional support and reduce feelings of isolation and stress.
- Healthy lifestyle choices: Eating a balanced diet, drinking lots of water, exercising, reducing alcohol and caffeine intake, and avoiding tobacco and drug use can all help reduce the impact of stress on physical and mental health.
- Mindfulness: Practicing mindfulness meditation or other mindfulness techniques can help reduce stress and anxiety by promoting a greater sense of calm and relaxation. Just 3-5 minutes of mindfulness per day can have a positive impact on your sense of balance and wellbeing.
- Stress management training: Learning stress management techniques such as relaxation exercises, mindfulness, or cognitive-behavioral therapy can help individuals develop effective coping strategies for managing stress.
- Regular physical exams: Scheduling regular physical exams with a healthcare provider can help identify and address any underlying medical conditions that may contribute to stress.
By incorporating these strategies into daily life, individuals can help reduce the impact of stress on physical and mental health and improve overall well-being.
How Long Does Stress Last?
The duration of stress can vary depending on the underlying cause, individual circumstances, and coping mechanisms. In some cases, stress may be short-lived and resolve on its own within a few hours or days. For example, acute stress may occur in response to a specific event, such as a job interview or public speaking engagement, and typically subsides once the event has passed.
However, if stress persists over a longer period of time, it can become chronic and have negative effects on physical and mental health. Chronic stress is defined as ongoing stress that persists for weeks, months, or even years, and can lead to a range of physical and emotional symptoms.
The duration of chronic stress can vary widely and may depend on factors such as the underlying cause, individual coping mechanisms, and access to effective stress management strategies. Without appropriate management, chronic stress can continue for an extended period of time and lead to long-term health problems such as cardiovascular disease, depression, and anxiety.
It is important to seek medical and psychological support if you are experiencing chronic stress, as early intervention and effective management can help reduce the impact of stress on your health and well-being.
When Should I Talk to a Doctor About Stress?
If you are experiencing symptoms of stress that are interfering with your daily life, it may be beneficial to talk to a healthcare provider or mental health professional. Some signs that may indicate the need to seek medical attention for stress include:
- Physical symptoms: Chronic stress can lead to a range of physical symptoms, such as headaches, muscle tension, high blood pressure, and digestive problems. If these symptoms persist or worsen over time, consult a healthcare provider to rule out any underlying medical conditions and develop a plan to avoid long-term consequences.
- Emotional symptoms: Chronic stress can also have an impact on emotional health, leading to symptoms such as anxiety, depression, irritability, or difficulty concentrating. If these symptoms interfere with daily life or persist over time, then talking to a mental health professional or healthcare provider can help you develop a strategy to improve your mental health moving forward.
- Lifestyle changes: If stress is causing significant changes in lifestyle habits, such as difficulty sleeping, changes in appetite, or increased use of alcohol or drugs, it may be beneficial to seek medical attention to address any underlying issues and develop a plan for managing stress in a healthy way.
- Difficulty coping: If you are finding it difficult to cope with stress on your own, feeling overwhelmed or helpless, or are unsure how to manage stress effectively, it may be beneficial to seek guidance from a healthcare provider or mental health professional.
Seeking medical attention for stress is not a sign of weakness and can be an important step in promoting overall health and well-being as well as avoiding long-term stress-related consequences like heart attacks, strokes, and more serious mental health challenges. Healthcare providers can help you develop a personalized plan to manage stress and reduce its impact. Early intervention can help prevent the development of chronic stress and associated health problems, so it is important to seek medical attention as soon as symptoms become a concern.
Is Alternative or Holistic Medicine Helpful for Stress?
Alternative and holistic health services can be beneficial for individuals experiencing stress because they focus on treating the whole person, including physical, mental, and emotional health, rather than treating one piece at a time. These services may include practices such as acupuncture, naturopathic medicine, massage therapy, meditation, yoga, or herbal remedies.
Acupuncture, for example, involves the insertion of thin needles into specific points on the body to balance the flow of energy in the body which promotes relaxation, reduces pain, and improves overall well-being. Massage therapy can help reduce muscle tension, boost circulation, and promote relaxation, while meditation and yoga can help reduce stress and improve mental clarity.
Herbal remedies may also be beneficial for individuals experiencing stress. Certain herbs, such as lavender, valerian root, chamomile, or passionflower, have been shown to have calming effects and may help reduce symptoms of anxiety and stress.
Connecting with an alternative and holistic health provider can provide individuals with additional tools and strategies for managing stress and promoting overall well-being. These services can complement conventional medical treatments and may be particularly beneficial for individuals who prefer a more natural approach to healthcare.
Be sure to talk with your doctor when you add alternative health care services to ensure that the new additions do not interact negatively with your current medications.
Foods to Avoid if You Have Stress
While there is no specific diet that can cure stress, there are certain foods that individuals may want to avoid or limit in order to help manage symptoms. These include:
- Caffeine: Consuming too much caffeine can contribute to feelings of anxiety and restlessness, as well as disrupt sleep. It is recommended that individuals limit their caffeine intake, particularly later in the day.
- Sugar: Consuming sugar can lead to fluctuations in blood sugar levels, which can contribute to mood swings and fatigue. It is recommended that individuals limit their intake of sugary foods and drinks. When you do eat something with sugar in it, be sure to add foods that have good fats, fiber, or protein to balance out the effects on blood sugar.
- Energy drinks, soda, or fruit juice: Drinking highly sweetened, nutrient-poor drinks like these is a sure way to boost your blood sugar quickly and drop it just as quickly. Artificially sweetened drinks of this type are, if anything, worse because they require so much detoxification and have long-term health consequences.
- Processed foods: Many processed foods contain high amounts of salt, sugar, chemicals, and unhealthy fats, which can contribute to inflammation and negative health effects. It is recommended that individuals choose whole, unprocessed foods as much as possible.
- Alcohol: While alcohol can initially provide a feeling of relaxation, it can actually contribute to feelings of anxiety and depression in the long term. It is recommended that individuals during times of stress limit their alcohol intake or avoid it altogether.
- High-fat foods: Consuming high amounts of saturated and trans fats, found in foods such as fried foods and treats, can contribute to inflammation and increase the risk of certain health conditions. It is recommended that individuals choose healthy fats, such as those found in nuts, seeds, olives, and fatty fish.
While avoiding these foods may not completely alleviate stress, it can be a helpful strategy in managing symptoms and promoting overall well-being. Additionally, it is important to consume a well-balanced diet that includes a variety of nutrient-dense foods to support physical and mental health.
Best Foods if You Have Stress
While there is no single food that can “cure” stress, consuming a well-balanced diet that includes a variety of nutrient-dense foods can help support physical and mental health, which may in turn help manage symptoms of stress. Some foods that may be particularly beneficial for individuals with stress include:
- Complex carbohydrates: Foods such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables provide a slow and steady release of glucose into the bloodstream, which can help regulate mood and energy levels.
- Omega-3 fatty acids: Found in fatty fish such as salmon, anchovies, sardines, and tuna, as well as in nuts and seeds, omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to help reduce inflammation and may help protect against depression and anxiety.
- Magnesium-rich foods: Magnesium is an important mineral for overall health and may helppromote feelings of physical and mental relaxation. Foods such as leafy green vegetables, nuts, and whole grains are good sources of magnesium.
- Foods rich in B vitamins: B vitamins play a role in energy production and neurotransmitter function, both of which can be affected by stress. Foods such as legumes, nuts, and leafy greens are good sources of B vitamins.
- Fermented foods: Fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, and kefir contain probiotics, which can help support gut health. There is a growing body of research that suggests a connection between gut health and mental health, so consuming fermented foods may be beneficial for individuals with stress.
- Herbal tea: Many herbal teas have shown beneficial effects in reducing cortisol, promoting neurotransmitter balance, and calming an anxious mind. Some of the most common include avena sativa, chamomile, passionflower, holy basil, licorice, and lemon balm. These are best used under the guidance of a knowledgeable practitioner.
In addition to consuming these foods, it is important to practice healthy eating habits such as eating regular meals, staying hydrated, and avoiding processed and sugary foods as much as possible. A balanced and nutrient-dense diet, combined with other stress management techniques such as exercise and mindfulness, can help individuals manage symptoms of stress and support overall health and well-being.
MTHFR (methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase) is an enzyme that plays a pivotal role in activating folate and the methylation process, which is important for DNA synthesis, detoxification, and neurotransmitter production. Research has suggested that mutations in the MTHFR gene may be associated with an increased risk for certain health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, depression, and anxiety.
Stress has been shown to affect the methylation process, which may be why there is a correlation between stress and MTHFR. Chronic stress can increase levels of homocysteine, an amino acid that is produced in excess when methylation is impaired, and may lead to decreased methylation activity.
Furthermore, research has suggested that individuals with mutations in the MTHFR gene may be more susceptible to the negative effects of stress due to impaired methylation activity. This impaired activity may lead to decreased neurotransmitter production, which can contribute to symptoms of anxiety and depression.
While the relationship between stress and MTHFR is complex and not fully understood, it is clear that both play a role in overall health and well-being. Addressing stress through healthy lifestyle habits and effective stress management techniques, along with appropriate medical treatment for any underlying conditions, may be beneficial for individuals with MTHFR mutations.
Those with known MTHFR mutations should follow an MTHFR-appropriate diet that excludes folic acid and find MTHFR-safe sources of folate such as the folate that occurs naturally in beans and dark leafy vegetables, 5-LMTHF, which is the active form of folate, or folinic acid. If you suspect you may be among the 40 – 50% of the US population who has an MTHFR mutation, then genetic testing may be useful.
MTHFR is one genetic polymorphism that has a known link with chronic stress, but there are others as well. Those with a slow COMT pattern (usually COMT Val158Met), often notice that they become stressed more easily and have a harder time winding down than average. This is due to the reduced ability to metabolize stress-related neurotransmitters such as epinephrine and norepinephrine. MAOA slow pattern may also experience stress more acutely for the same reason, and is often more prone to stress-related irritability or temper. MAOA fast pattern, on the other hand, is also very susceptible to stress, but it more likely to cope by reaching for sugary or carbohydrate-rich foods.
MTHFR is a common genetic mutation that can contribute to anxiety, depression, fatigue, chronic pain, infertility, and more serious conditions like breast implant illness, heart attack, stroke, chronic fatigue syndrome, and some types of cancer. If you know or suspect you have an MTHFR variant, schedule a free 15-minute meet-and-greet appointment with MTHFR expert Dr. Amy today.Book Your Appointment