“Rock bottom became the solid foundation in which I rebuilt my life.”
~JK Rowling, Author of the Harry Potter Books
Stress – it’s as natural as eating, breathing and sleeping and an essential aspect of being a human being on this planet. With acute stress, something temporary, our body has every capability and resource in knowing exactly how to respond when we feel some type of threat, danger, fear or change – real or perceived – so that we ultimately feel safe and “make it out alive.”
The stress response in the body follows an intentional cascade of communication between the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland and the adrenal glands. Cortisol, the main stress hormone secreted by our adrenal glands stimulates a “rallying of the troops” to all of our organ systems for the primary purpose of defense, protection and preservation. It’s a beautifully organized masterpiece. Our body’s got our back.
In a perfect world or circumstance, our body goes back to baseline so it can relax, repair and regain a sense of balance and structure.
Chronic stress or “no end in sight,” on the other hand plays out differently.
We might be faced with daily or ongoing stressors in our lives – job, financial, health conditions, raising children, caring for partners or aging parents, relationship stress, social isolation, pandemics, wars, etc.
Certain circumstances can still be stressful but produce incredible outcomes for our minds and bodies. Things like consistent exercise, leaving a job that no longer brings you joy and beginning a new one that’s more fulfilling, moving out of an old home and into a new home that you love, leaving a damaging relationship so that you can heal, studying for an important exam or earning your college degree, polishing your presenting skills to an audience, eliminating unhealthy lifestyle habits and replacing them with more nourishing choices and many more possibilities.
When the acute or chronic stress eventually ends, the stressor and stressful response is complete. Game over. The body goes back to normal, right? Not always.
Chronic stress can often occur as the recounting memory of a single stressful incident or a series of incidences from the past – months ago to many years ago. The original stressor is gone or resolved but the repeated pattern of thinking, feeling, remembering about the stressor – both consciously and subconsciously – will cause our body to suffer in the same way as if the stressor was still present. We are reliving it over and over and our body pays the price.
We’ve all done this. Dwelling over a longer period of time from a past hurt, betrayal, loss, abuse, accident, lie, cheat, manipulation, sabotage, etc. Even if you were justified in feeling hurt, the body still perceives it as chronic stress. It doesn’t know the difference.
Over time, chronic stress – whatever the cause – results in excess inflammation which leads to cell and organ damage, dysfunction, nutrient depletion, degeneration and ultimately disease.
Inflammation is a normal physiological response. It’s part of our defense system and yet it also initiates and executes the healing process. An overabundance of this essential process is counterproductive and catastrophic.
Listed below are common physiological adverse responses to chronic stress:
Ongoing Fatigue: Wired & Tired
Gastro-Intestinal Pain & Ulcers
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Intestinal Permeability (“Leaky Gut Syndrome”)
High Blood Pressure
Irritability & Impatience
Anxiety & Panic Attacks
Depression & Mood Swings
Short Term Memory Impairment
Difficulty Focusing/Attention Deficit
Muscle Aches & Fibromyalgia
Respiratory Infections Increase
Weight Gain: Increased Abdominal Fat
Carbohydrate & Sugar Cravings
Insulin Resistance (elevated glucose and insulin)
Skin: Premature Aging, Eczema, Psoriasis, Acne
Immune and Autoimmune Disorders
Menstrual irregularities: heavy bleeding, skipping periods, inconsistent ovulation, shorter cycles, mid-cycle bleeding
Chronic Disease Risk
How you react to stressful circumstances matters. What matters even more is how long you react and whether or not you remain stuck in the emotional pain and misery.
How can you recover more efficiently from stress and become stronger?
Practice Stress Resilience. And keep practicing.
Stress Resilience means that you can adapt and bounce back more quickly or easily after a single or series of stressful events, adversities, challenges, setbacks in your life.
Resilience is what gives people the ability and endurance to cope. Resilient people utilize many of their internal and external resources to overcome challenges.
As with many things in life, stress resilience is individualized and subjective. While one person might be able to triumph over repeated adversities and evolve into a better version of themselves, another person might struggle with one stressful incident for many years to come.
Your stress resilience can become stronger over time, similar to strengthening your muscles. In many cases, you can carry a “heavier load.” In fact, those people that are more stress resilient actually grow, thrive and become more successful because of their stressful adversities.
People who lack sufficient resilience are more likely to feel helpless, victimized, unsupported, overwhelmed and turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as overeating, excess alcohol intake, overuse of medications, recreational drugs, self-harm, isolation and other addictive or self-destructive behaviors.
Your resilience is dependent on many factors in your life and truly comes down to your unique personality. There’s no one size fits all when determining the success of your stress resilience. Listed below are just a few components of ways to become more stress resilient. From a synergistic, functional medicine perspective, it is important that you integrate and practice all of these for much greater results.
Every cell and organ in our physical body is highly sensitive to adversity and the subsequent hormones of stress. There are countless things you can do to nourish and strengthen your body. Just hop on Google and you’ll be bombarded with many thousands of products and services and the latest fads on how to boost health and longevity.
Let’s address the basic yet essential foundations of your health – diet, exercise and sleep.
Not a “Diet” but rather the foods and beverages you take in that determine your vitality. A consistent diet rich in a balance and abundance of vegetables, fruits, healthy sources of protein and fats provides you with the essential macro and micronutrients it needs to fuel, repair, heal and rejuvenate your body – including those workhorse adrenal glands of yours. Nutritional and botanical supplements can also assist your body immensely in adapting to stress. A nutrient poor (unhealthy) diet will leave you feeling depleted, deficient and will only add more stress and inflammation to your body.
Exercise is just as critical as your diet. How often and the type of exercise is the key. Consistent aerobic conditioning is best paired with muscle strengthening exercises to boost your overall metabolic rate throughout your body. As your metabolism accelerates, your body is able to more efficiently break down and excrete stress hormones, decrease inflammation and heal. The greatest advantage of exercise is that it forces us to breathe, take in more life giving oxygen while strengthening the heart – the most powerful, relentless organ in the body.
While the quantity of sleep hours matters, the quality of sleep has the greatest impact on health. When you sleep, your parasympathetic nervous system takes over and your body goes into deep healing, repair, revitalization mode. Hormones, proteins, neurotransmitters are regenerated and stress hormones drop. Your body naturally becomes more stress resilient when your hormones are balanced.
When we are faced with stressful events, hardships and setbacks, it is easy to feel threatened, defeated, victimized and helpless. Those are natural reactions. What and how we think about those events and how long we ruminate becomes important in the resilience and overcoming.
Questions that you can ask yourself that will help you move forward in the direction of healing include:
What lesson or message can I receive and learn from this difficult time?
How can I reframe this in a way that will help me understand the deeper meaning and get through this easier?
Can I become more self aware of and observe my reactions to stress, negative patterns and instead practice more positive responses?
Sometimes, even saying “I’ve gone through really hard times many times before and I’ll get through this one, too.” Get out of your head and inner world that gets caught up in your own stories.
Reach for the infinite number of books, podcasts, conferences, therapists, coaches and other resources that can be profoundly inspirational at helping you persevere past the stress.