By Dr Kate Gregorevic – Daily Life
I recently saw an advertisement that was a mass of wellness clichés: a thin white woman wearing yoga gear, with a tree superimposed on her body advertising a “herbal” stress supplement with some psdeudoscientific language about balancing adrenals.
Firstly, if you actually have “unbalanced adrenals”, this is a very serious medical problem and you should see a doctor. What the advertisement was actually trying to say was if you take this tablet it will solve all the stress in your life.
While this sounds amazing, it is also rubbish.
If you really want balance there are ways to do it that do not include a pill.Credit:Stocksy
Stress is a term that is used so often, it is hard to actually work out what it actually means.
The stress response is our body’s reaction to anything that is a possible threat, whether physical, psychological or biological. The same neurohormonal processes kick into place whether you are being chased by a tiger or reading a late-night passive aggressive email from your boss.
When we see, hear or smell something that we perceive as a threat, our brains send signals vis our sympathetic nervous system to the rest of the body to get ready for a surge of physical activity: our heart beats faster, our pupils dilate, our blood vessels constrict so our blood pressure goes up and our breathing speeds up.
As well as the lightening quick on-off of the nervous system, our brains also send signals to our adrenal glands to release cortisol for a more sustained response. Cortisol levels take around fifteen minutes to go up, but the results last for hours. Although cortisol is essential for life at the right levels, when it is elevated all day, every day, it is linked with a host of health problems, like hypertension, diabetes, heart disease and raised levels of inflammation.
This stress response is very helpful if you are facing a physical threat, but much less helpful in a world where our perceived threats are psychological and chronic, like having enough money to pay the mortgage.
The higher levels of inflammation, blood pressure and blood glucose help explain why chronic stress is just so bad for our physical health. Overwhelming stress is also a major contributor to anxiety and depression.
It’s easy to feel despondent reading about the negative health impacts of stress, but where this gets more hopeful is that a large amount of this risk can actually be buffered by lifestyle factors.
While meditation and mindfulness do have real effects on our nervous system and cortisol levels, these are not for everyone. The physical effects of stress means that it is possible to use physical factors to counter the negative health effects. Exercise, eating a diet based around wholefoods and making sleep a priority will all help your physical and mental health. Even just trying to take some time each day to do something you enjoy can give your body and mind a break.
Of course, these things can be easier said than done.
Women experience stress at higher levels than men and for many of us, the sources of chronic stress in our life are unavoidable, like the juggle of managing children and working long hours, financial concerns and workplace challenges.
We think about stress as a growing problem, but the highest selling drug in the 1970s in the USA was Valium, marketed for psychic distress. The mismatch of the pressures of the modern world and our physical response to stress has been around for decades and will persist, but we are getting better at speaking about the way stress makes us feel and recognising that it is both physical and psychological.
It doesn’t help that we are constantly surrounded by images of idealised perfection, and tantalising promises that if we just buy one more thing, our stress will melt away. While I have a weakness for expensive athleisure, it doesn’t actually do anything for my stress levels unless I make it to that yoga class.
One of the hardest aspects of managing stress is feeling like we are important enough to make our own health a priority in a world where we have been socialised to feel guilty for making time for our own health.
On aeroplanes we get told to fit our own oxygen masks first, because only then we can help other people. While this is certainly true, how about the message that we deserve oxygen, simply because we are valuable in our own right, rather than for how we can serve others.
Going to bed early, eating my vegetables and going to the gym help me to manage my stress levels. This doesn’t just make me a better mother and worker, it helps me feel better and that is the best reason of all.
Dr Kate Gregorevic is a physician at the Royal Melbourne Hospital