Chronic stress can be difficult to define since we all experience different levels of stress daily. First, let’s break down how the body reacts to stressors, pivoting into “fight or flight” mode to give you extra energy.
When stress persists, our HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis will respond to sustain this immediate reaction. Additional hormones, glucocorticoids, are released into most organs and tissues. These help to keep regulating the body, and eventually dampen stress hormones if the perceived stress is resolved.
Chronic stress overwhelms the HPA response, leaving us in a state of stress without proper regulation to return to equilibrium. Systemic levels of stress mediators remain high throughout our bodies. We stay in “fight or flight” instead of returning to a state of “rest and digest”. This can compromise the immune system, and lead to adrenal fatigue, depression, and several other health concerns.
We all adapt strategies to calm the immediate stress response, but chronic stress can be more difficult to address. Alongside small interventions like breathwork and mindfulness, there are other ways to combat sustained stress.
Exercise helps produce our ‘happy’ hormones. Physical activity has been proven to sustain brain health through regulating neuroinflammation, and studies have shown that stimulation and contraction of skeletal muscles are key to combating stress.
It’s important to find mindful movement that you can look forward to incorporating into your daily life. Walking outside is an accessible way to meet your activity goals. Strength training should also be a top priority, to prepare our bodies for natural changes as we age. Weight lifting and body-weight workouts such as yoga and pilates are great for building bone and muscle health.
I cannot understate how important sleep is to overall health, especially for those under chronic stress. Rest helps the body regain homeostasis and gives the brain a break from persistent stressors. I recommend establishing consistent sleep and waking times, not snacking/working/reading in bed, and putting away screens 60 minutes before sleep.
In addition to combatting fatigue, a regular sleep schedule can help regulate hormone levels and build learned routines within the body. Healthy circadian rhythms allow us to fall asleep, stay asleep, and exert energy when we most need it. This translates to reliable melatonin secretion before bed to promote sleepiness, higher/lower body temperature at different times of day, and other aspects of our ‘biological clock’.
Adaptogens are herbs that aid the body in building resistance to stress, traditionally used in India and China for thousands of years. By increasing the state of nonspecific resistance to stress and decreasing the sensitivity to stressors, adaptogens can build “stress protection” and prolong the phase of resistance. Instead of exhaustion, a higher level of homeostasis is reached. These stimulating and anti-fatigue effects can be found in a large variety of natural plants that function as adaptogens.
I’ll leave you with a powerful quote from Agnese Mariotti:
“It is clear that in the case of illnesses caused by heightened occupational stress, priority should be given to preventive interventions to create and maintain work conditions respectful of human physiological, emotional, and social needs: in other words, the work environment should stimulate growth and productivity while supporting each individual in their challenges.”
What a great invitation to assess whether your body can heal and relax in your environment, or if a larger change is needed.
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Cotman, C. W., Berchtold, N. C., & Christie, L.-A. (2007). Exercise builds brain health: key roles of growth factor cascades and inflammation. Trends in Neurosciences, 30(9), 464–472. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tins.2007.06.011
Mariotti, A. (2015). The effects of chronic stress on Health: New Insights Into the molecular mechanisms of brain–body communication. Future Science OA, 1(3). https://doi.org/10.4155/fso.15.21
Pannoisian, A., & Wikman, G. (2010). Effects of Adaptogens on the Central Nervous System and the Molecular Mechanisms Associated with Their Stress—Protective Activity. Pharmaceuticals (Basel), 3(1), 188–224. https://doi.org/10.3390/ph3010188
Walker, W.H., Walton, J.C., DeVries, A.C. et al. Circadian rhythm disruption and mental health. Translational Psychiatry 10, 28 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41398-020-0694-0 https://www.nature.com/articles/s41398-020-0694-0