Since March 2020, most of us have discovered a whole new way of life: We have far less physical contact with the people we care about, and far more time to sit and not know what we can plan for the near future. Unsurprisingly, this has resulted in significant increases in our basic day to day stress. Whether you’re a parent trying to work full time from home whilst still ensuring your children get their schoolwork done, a person working in hospitality and watching your industry slow down just when you expected it to get busy, someone working on the front line, or any one of the thousands of students, self employed people or therapists who had to shut down all work and hope that we could resume at some point, this is for you: What is stress, how does it affect your body on a systemic level, and what can you do about it?
What is stress?
Simply put, stress is how your body responds to potentially threatening situations. Your “stress response” is what is commonly known as your ‘fight or flight’ response, which kicks off with a nice big hit of epinephrine, norepinephrine (Often simply referred to together as adrenaline and noradrenaline - we’re going to simplify to adrenaline going forward) that send your heart rate through the roof, and makes you feel hyper alert and almost tingly. You also produce a powerful anti-inflammatory hormone called cortisol, which suppresses your non-vital organs while you’re fighting or running, as well as reducing tissue damage caused by inflammation if you are injured. In a perfect world, this alertness and energy would allow you to react more quickly in a close call on the road or to run fast enough to escape a raging rooster (I considered saying bear, but you can’t outrun a bear, please do not try - here’s what to do instead). In one of these intense situations, your adrenaline allows you to respond, react, fight or run. Once you’ve survived, your body gradually absorbs back up the adrenaline and cortisol and either breaks them down or stores them back in the cells where it came from to be used for later. So your stress response is not a bad thing, in fact, it’s necessary for survival.
The stress we have all experienced since March 2020 is a little different. With the uncertainty and additional mental, physical, emotional, and financial challenges we’ve all been facing, we have diverged into the arena of chronic stress or long-term stress. Unfortunately, since then we have all been under an extra amount of psychological stress and your body is not great at figuring out the differences between physical and psychological stress. This means that you can have elevated adrenaline and cortisol responses for a long time because the source of the stress doesn’t go away therefore your body doesn’t get to store away the stress hormones instead it continues to produce it and it floats around in your body impacting your health. Chronic stress has been found to either cause or exacerbate any of the following: Depression, anxiety, pain and conditions such as fibromialgia, sleep, autoimmune diseases, digestion, skin conditions, heart disease, weight, reproduction, and your ability to concentrate and remember.
So how does chronic stress affect your body on a physiological level? Kara E. Hannibal and Mark D. Bishop wrote an excellent article detailing how your chronic stress impacts your body, you can find the full article here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4263906/ . If reading peer reviewed articles is not your bag, I’ll do my best to summarize your body’s response here. More than adrenaline, we focus on cortisol as the problematic chronic stress hormone. I should point out that cortisol is a natural hormone occurring in our bodies, and that the amount of cortisol available in your system ebbs and flows throughout the day, tending to peak in the morning to increase alertness, and then drops later in the day as you head towards rest. We need cortisol in order to function properly. The problem arises when you have been perpetually over-supplying your body with cortisol, and your body’s hormones are pushed out of balance.
With cortisol dysfunction, you lose it’s powerful anti-inflammatory effects, which means that your body may over-respond to pathogens or psychological stress with an excessive inflammatory response (ie. the opposite response you would expect from cortisol), which results in faster breakdown of your bone and muscle tissues, fatigue, depression, pain, and so on. Unfortunately, perpetually high cortisol reduces your body’s response to its beneficial effects, often resulting in ongoing decreased internal organ function along with an elevated inflammatory response in your body. This is why you can have severe digestive changes during chronic stress. Basically, you end up more sore, have poorer digestion, and it takes longer to heal if you’re injured. It can also mess with your brain chemistry, resulting in reduced mood and in some cases depression and anxiety. The opposite of the ‘fight or flight’ response is the “rest and digest” response. Basically, this phase is supposed to reverse the effects of the stress response and bring your body back into it’s happy place, called homeostasis. However, when you’re dealing with long-term stress, your body never truly has the opportunity to ‘rest and digest’ so the stress response goes unchecked.
So what can you do about it?
The first thing to do is recognize the stressors you have going on in your life. Once you know what they are, the key is to do what you can to manage them so they have less impact - much easier said than done.
When the stressor is outside of your control, like a pandemic, considering meditation or seeing a therapist for cognitive behavioural therapy. These therapies can help you develop tools to improve your ability to cope with long-term and acute stress.
We would be remiss if we did not talk about ‘self care,’ which we hear about all the time but what are they really: Eating well, sleeping well, finding ways to unwind, exercise… you know the list. Unfortunately these all take some time to execute and there aren’t really any shortcuts to dealing with chronically high levels of cortisol. Eating well can mean a variety of things depending on your own personal needs and lifestyle, but the best thing you can do is be consistent. The same is true for your sleep. Good sleep hygiene, e.g. consistently going to bed and getting up at the same time, not taking your digital devices to bed, etc. will vary from one individual to another - you have to figure out what works best for you and allows you to feel rested. That may also mean that naps become a good way to reset in the middle of the day.
Maintaining some kind of physical activity is essential for a host of bodily functions that promote overall well being. When it comes to dealing with stress, low to moderate intensity exercise tends to be most effective, because high intensity exercise can actually increase stress level on your body and remember the body is not good at knowing the difference between physical stress (high intensity exercise) and psychological stress (living through a pandemic). However, the best exercise is always the one that you will do consistently. It’s been pretty widely recognized that during this time of social isolation it is essential to maintain positive connections with the people you care about. Good social interactions help to manage stress and increase positive hormones like, oxytocin. Finally, one particularly fun way to help your cortisol levels become more regulated is to take care of a furry four legged friend, so if you needed another reason to get an animal in your life, here it is!
The main thing to do is to prioritize the things you can control and take care of your own wellbeing and recognize that there is no such thing as perfection in this - it really is about the process. Enjoy the parts of this journey you can don’t focus on the destination as it is out of all of our control! And remember: Self care is not selfish! You are a better parent, partner, friend, relative, and human if you take the time to take care of yourself. And in these uncertain times, being kind to yourself if you’ve added a few extra pounds, had acne like you’re back in puberty, been unable to get your child to complete all their assignments, or feel brain fog trying to work from home 24/7. Life has changed drastically for most of us due to the changes wrought by Covid-19, so expecting that your body and mind will continue on as if nothing happened is not realistic at the moment. Give yourself the grace to recognize that you are tired from doing nothing and sometimes a nap is going to do you more good than a workout. Do the best you can and forgive yourself for the sluggish days. And as Doctor Henry says: Be kind, be calm, be safe.