Acute or short-term stress can be beneficial – if we have a close call while driving in traffic, the stress-response heightens our senses so we’re more alert and watchful, with faster reactions. Sometimes also called hormetic stressors, exercise like resistance training creates damage that, when our bodies repair it, makes us stronger in preparation to perform the action again. Exercise, however, can also be a chronic or long-term stress if the intensity level is too high for too long, we’re doing it every day and/or there’s not enough recovery time to make the improvements.
Stress elevates hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol which:
· Suppresses testosterone;
· Makes the body increase blood sugar levels;
· Encourages fat storage in the abdomen; and
· Contributes to the expansion of the brain’s fear centre from being bathed in these stress hormones.
When we’re in this kind of fight-or-flight state, our bodies interpret it as deathly risk that has to take priority over everything else – i.e. we’re being chased by a predator. In this situation, digesting food effectively to make full use of the nutrients isn’t important – this is partly why taking time to sit quietly and eat mindfully is always recommended. The chronic stress often engendered by modern lifestyles is what leads to burnout over time.
Sleep can be impacted if we’re ruminating on a stressful situation or, if we're waking during the night for no other reason, it could be a stress-response to blood sugar dropping too low. Alternatively, waking during the night could be related to underlying background stress - when we move in to a light stage of sleep during each 90-minute sleep cycle, underlying stress could be enough to wake us completely, meaning our sleep is not as effective as it should be at the repair and recovery we desperately need.
When we’re breathing in a stressed state, our ribs and shoulders are rising and falling with short breaths – this is less effective at oxygenating the blood than if we’re breathing deeply and calmly as well as signaling to the body that we are still not safe.
Stress from traumatic events also gets stored in our cellular memory so keep an eye out for the next and final post with some information on what we can do about stress.