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We feel it every day at work, while trying to sleep and when we hit the snooze button for the third time each morning. Stress grows every day and, for many, it has become an untamed monster. But what can we do to mediate the side-effects of stress and overload on our everyday lives?

Cave-Man Style: Fight or Flight

The concept of stress is rooted in survival; psychologists theorise that we needed a way for our brains and bodies to calculate whether to fight off a predator or run the other way. This has been dubbed our “fight or flight” response and it is still an integral part of our daily life. The brain begins by processing a threat as a stressor; which initiates a complex biophysical adaptation and coping response designed to protect us. The hypothalamus and amygdala power up the sympathetic nervous system and release two different hormones. catecholamines, or excitatory stress hormones, become elevated, while glucocorticoids, from the adrenal cortex, create an adrenaline rush. The hormonal rush raises the heart rate and blood pressure to allow us to focus and be alert; ready to respond to threats instantly. The autonomic nervous system, metabolic system, stomach, kidneys, and the immune system are all affected in a secondary nature by the hormonal reaction; however, the responses from these systems are largely influenced by genes, developmental history, and the current psychological and behavioural state of the person. When man was in constant danger of becoming lunch, this response was key for survival. When your body is constantly flooded with hormones from many different daily threats and stressors, these stress hormones compromise your performance, efficiency, and your health.

Modern stress arises from threats to well-being or when we cannot adequately cope with demands.  Demands on time and energy grow as technology allows us to do multiple tasks, communicate in various formats, and do more with our time. Expectations have risen to a maximum and we feel pressure to compete and complete in record time. Companies and individuals do more in less time, but what is happening to our minds and bodies as the war to do more rages on?

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A Little Can Become A Lot

Stress may not always feel overpowering, but researchers have found that little stressors we commonly encounter will add up over time. Psychologists often refer to stress and changes as “arousal”. When our arousal is heightened, the brain responds by engaging and resolving the stress to return to a normal state. This normal or stable state is referred to as allostasis.  Arousal triggers a cascade of neural and hormonal responses to assist our bodies in engaging with a stressor. We would die if stuck in an eternal fight or flight state. This highly responsive state needs resolution by deescalating or fleeing the stressor; so that the brain and body can return to a normal, and less intense, state. Our minds and bodies naturally prefer allostasis. When consistently aroused, even in small amounts, we become overloaded and unable to return to normal physical and emotional conditions. This excessive burden is known as allostatic load.

Allostatic Load: Stress Is A Killer

Allostatic load is connected to the neural system, neuroendocrine system, and neuroendocrine immune mechanisms.  A high allostatic load over time damages these systems and leaves the mind and body unable to adapt. Activity related to allostatic systems can fail to shut off and lead to mental decrease and disease.  Numerous researchers have studied the impact of allostatic load and stress upon the mind and body. Symptoms and side effects of high allostatic load even include an increase in heart disease, stroke, and cancer.  Hypertension is often directly related to high job-related stress and pressure, time constraints, highly repetitive positions, and unstable positions. In addition, stress-related food consumption can contribute to a poor diet and metabolic imbalances lead to pre-diabetic state and abdominal obesity. A longitudinal study of ageing adults found a connection between high allostatic load a decrease in cognitive and physical functioning and an elevated risk for incidence of cardiovascular disease; these results were found to be independent of sociodemographic and health status risk factors. Those suffering from high allostatic load at any age must be concerned with an increased vulnerability to cold and serious infections, bone demineralization, and an increase in glucocorticoids resulting in physiological and behavioural changes. Ultimately, consistent high allostatic loads are associated with high-risk mortality.

Too Much of a Bad Thing

Allostatic load can change our brain structure and functioning. The amygdala and hippocampus are responsible for a number of functions including emotions and interpreting what is stressful and the appropriate responses. After prolonged exposure to stressful events and environments, the amygdala can become hyperactive and damaged. Hyperactive amygdalae are also seen in severe psychiatric disorders such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, clinical depression, and pathological ageing. Similar results are seen in the hippocampus, which is also responsible for the expression of adrenal steroid receptors. Increasing allostatic load shuts down mediator hormones and leads decreased dendritic branching and neurons in the dentate gyrus (an area of the hippocampus), simulating the effects of several psychiatric disorders. Researchers discovered this pattern of wear and tear in the mind was mirrored in the body, causing disruptions and disease of the cardiovascular, metabolic, and immune systems.

Old Response; New Challenges

The World Health Organization declared stress to be one of the largest challenges of the 21st century; with work-related stress contributing the most to allostatic load. The demand to do more, multitask, produce results at a competitive level, and meet standards beyond our capacities takes a toll.  Work-related stress increases risks in occupational safety, absenteeism, job terminations, work-related accidents, and reduced productivity. 

Adverse work conditions and poor social support are associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and other adverse health outcomes in otherwise healthy adults.  A recent study found an association between biologic dysfunction and women suffering from high allostatic load in the health care sector.  Stressful working conditions and inadequate recovery is an ongoing health crisis, but research offers new tools and technology to assist in the repairing of one’s well-being.

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Lessening the Impact

Counteracting the effects stress caused by working conditions helps offset damage and decrease allostatic load. Mindfulness is an ancient Buddhist practice that has evolved as popular technique to reduce stress. Research suggests mindfulness techniques are excellent in deescalating the impact of allostatic load and reducing arousal from stressful events.  Mindfulness helps sufferers alleviate pain, depression, and anxiety symptoms, and lessen the hazardous effects that lead to cancer and heart disease.  One study placed participants on an 8-week stress reduction program based on mindfulness practice. Participants experienced a reduction in stress-related symptoms and increase in sense of self-control and accepting or yielding control in their lives. 

Heal Your Body, Heal Your Mind

The benefits of physical exercise for our bodies are well known; it also can heal our minds simultaneously. Research regarding yoga and physical exercise suggest the areas responsible for emotional well-being are positively impacted by activity. The areas of the brain responsible for stress relief, reward, and motivation are contained within the limbic system of the brain and exercise has an impact upon these areas of the brain.  Physical activity increases mood and decrease psychological distress, and exercise is beneficial to the systems commonly damaged by stress. 

Music for the Soul

Music is commonly used to decrease stressful situations and anxiety, but did you know music counteracts heart rate and blood pressure associated with stressful events? Stress-induced increases in cardiovascular areas are prevented by exposure to music.  A hormonal study involving music was found to decrease stressful emotions and moods, and the hormonal and bodily responses associated with stress.  Listening to music helps elevate our mood and emotional well-being; this naturally helps the mind and body to lower our arousal and allostatic load. Music immediately lowers our mind and body’s reaction to stress and combines well with physical activity or mindfulness to help return to allostasis.

In summary, stress is neither curable nor avoidable, but the damaging effects associated with stress can be limited by using a two-pronged approach containing both stress-reducing techniques and activities to counteract the harm. Awareness of stress in our daily lives and allostatic load is vital to quelling the chaos, and to stop it wreaking havoc on our minds and bodies.

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