Stress – the good, the bad and the ugly

Stress – the good, the bad and the ugly

The autonomic nervous system has a direct role in physical response to stress and is divided into the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). When the body is stressed, the SNS contributes to what is known as the “fight or flight” response. The body shifts its energy resources toward fighting off a life threat or fleeing from an enemy.

The SNS signals the adrenal glands to release hormones called adrenalin (epinephrine) and cortisol. These hormones, together with direct actions of autonomic nerves, cause the heart to beat faster, respiration rate to increase, blood vessels in the arms and legs to dilate, the digestive process to change and glucose levels (sugar energy) in the bloodstream to increase to deal with the emergency.

Chronic stress, experiencing stressors over a prolonged period, can result in a long-term drain on the body. As the autonomic nervous system continues to trigger physical reactions, it causes a wear-and-tear on the body. It’s not so much what chronic stress does to the nervous system, but what continuous activation of the nervous system does to other bodily systems that become problematic.

Endocrine system

When someone perceives a situation to be challenging, threatening, or uncontrollable, the brain initiates a cascade of events involving the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is the primary driver of the endocrine stress response. This ultimately results in an increase in the production of steroid hormones called glucocorticoids, which include cortisol, often referred to as the “stress hormone”.

The HPA axis

Cortisol increases the level of energy fuel available by mobilizing glucose and fatty acids from the liver. Cortisol is normally produced at varying levels throughout the day, typically increasing in concentration upon awakening and slowly declining throughout the day, providing a daily cycle of energy.

During a stressful event, an increase in cortisol can provide the energy required to deal with prolonged or extreme challenges. Usually, a low amount of stress is a good thing – but continued long-term is detrimental to health.

The body reacts to short-term stress by directing energy/blood flow away from the immune system and digestion, which aren’t deemed necessary for survival as part of the fight or flight response

Stress and health

Glucocorticoids, including cortisol, are important for regulating the immune system and reducing inflammation. While this is valuable during stressful or threatening situations where injury might result in increased immune system activation, chronic stress can impair communication between the immune system and the HPA axis.

This impaired communication has been linked to the future development of numerous physical and mental health conditions, including chronic fatigue, metabolic disorders (e.g., diabetes, obesity), depression, and immune disorders.

Start to implement one or two of the strategies below and build from there, making too many changes at once can be overwhelming.

Beneficial strategies to use in your daily routine include:

  • Maintaining a healthy social support network
  • Engaging in regular physical exercise, join a Pilates or, yoga class
  • Getting an adequate amount of sleep each night, 8 hours is the golden number
  • Follow a healthy diet (quality proteins, variety of vegetables, small amount of carbohydrates)
  • Specific nutrients to support the adaptation to stress (magnesium and activated B vitamins)
  • Minimise screen and phone use
  • Have a bath using Epsom salts and essentials oils
  • Practice self-care such as stretching before bed, massage, reading a good book, diffusing scented calming essential oils, yoga, cooking
  • Calming essential oils, such as Lavender, vertivert, sandalwood, Ylang- ylang, geranium, chamomile
  • Reduce your intake of caffeine. Caffeine stimulates your central nervous system, and can increase anxiety – consider your sensitivity and cut back on coffee, chocolate, tea, and energy drinks
  • Spend time with friends and family
  • Create boundaries and learn to say NO
  • Reduce alcohol intake which like caffeine can increase anxiety
  • Volunteer to support a charity
  • Listen to music
  • Subscribe to an uplifting podcast
  • Practice mindfulness
  • Spend time on nature – hikes walks / river/beach
  • Spend time with pets
  • Practice deep breathing




Jacky Dixon
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