Updated: Mar 18, 2021
It is vital to look after our emotions. Every emotion we feel is made by the body and then digested. Prolonged stress is detrimental to our health; associated with obesity, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disorders and leaves us susceptible to disease. Self-love and living in the present is a valid way to live yet we often put ourselves last in the queue and just keep going. I hope that by highlighting how our stress mechanisms work we might understand ourselves a little better. If you are feeling stressed and simply looking for tips then scroll to the bottom of this article...
In times of threat the body creates a ‘flight or fright’ response. Upon fright, stress hormones are created which travel through the bloodstream. These hormones send blood to our brain and muscles which focus our concentration and give us extra strength to fight or run away. During this time we feel our heart beat faster and our mind race; once the threat has passed these hormones dissipate and eventually our body returns to normal. We are able to cope with ‘acute’ stress and this is a valid approach in our evolution; we had to be ready to run from that Lion! Yet, in our modern world the Lion appears in many forms and is often a daily occurrence.
Prolonged stress causes complex interactions in a hormonal system known as the Hypothalamic - Pituitary - Adrenal Axis (HPA axis); whilst this name sounds complicated it simply refers to a link between the brain and the body. The first two areas are found in the brain (the Hypothalamus and Pituitary) which send signals to the adrenal glands which are found on top of the kidneys. In simple terms the hypothalamus releases a hormone (CRH) which triggers the pituitary gland to produce a hormone (ACTH) which then makes the adrenal glands produce compounds called Adrenaline, Noradrenaline and Cortisol. Each of these hormones in this circuit help us to cope with stress by affecting our automatic mechanisms which control heart rate, blood pressure and digestive processes.
Adrenaline and Noradrenaline stimulate our alpha and beta receptors within our nervous system. Alpha receptors are found in the arteries and beta receptors are found in the heart, lungs and skeletal muscles. Adrenaline acts on these receptors to increase our heart rate, push the heart harder and relax the muscles found in our airways increasing the oxygen in our blood. Noradrenaline increases our heart rate but causes our blood vessels to narrow, increasing our blood pressure; we associate long-term high blood pressure with dis-ease. Meanwhile Cortisol causes the release of sugar into the bloodstream which gives our muscles and brain more energy to cope with the stresses we are under. Long-term stress can therefore pressurise our cardiovascular system and also create imbalanced blood sugars. And, while these hormones are portrayed negatively they serve a purpose when this mechanism is working correctly. In the case, Cortisol would normally 'end' a stress response by stopping CRH production, however, in times of constant stress this circuit continues, causing detrimental effects to our body.
In times of stress our appetite is affected - we become unmotivated, depressed, over react (anxiety), become forgetful and in some cases feel increased pain. This is because of the many interactions within the brain and HPA axis. For example, the limbic system controls our motivation and mood. Interactions with the amygdala control our response to fear and danger. The hippocampus is involved in memory and the hypothalamus controls our appetite! Depression is associated with high cortisol which depresses brain activity leading to a sedate state and isolation with lowered intimacy and insomnia. Whilst we can’t control the situations we find ourselves in, we can choose how we respond to those situations rather than allowing things to get our of control.
Our amazing body can only heal, grow and digest or ‘fight’. When we are in a state of constant ‘fight’, our reproduction, immunity and repair of the body all suffer. As a teacher I used to push through the weeks until the Christmas holiday; with little sleep due to report writing, concerts, exams and social events I would then find myself sick over the Christmas period! Cortisol reduces our inflammatory response (the mechanisms for dealing with an invader) and the production of white cells (which fight infection) leaving us susceptible to colds and flus.
I think many of us can relate to stress affecting our digestive system - a common sign of an overworked HPA axis. CRH reduces the amount of stomach acid that is normally produced which can lead to poor nutrient absorption long-term. CRH also speeds up the emptying of the stomach, often leading us to the toilet in times of stress too!
Our response to stress and food varies; some people have a reduced appetite and rely on stimulants to see them through, while others eat to feel better. Cortisol increases our appetite but also increases fat storage and most often we and we most often we turn to a sugary snack, leading to weight gain. If we are craving food it is a good choice to eat high protein foods (such as nuts and seeds) as protein creates satiety; we feel fuller for longer and eat less.
When our kidneys are overworked we become exhausted often reaching for caffeine. Whilst caffeine gives us an initial high, this and the subsequent dehydration cause more cortisol to be produced. This situation creates a vicious circle of addiction to get us through the day. Sadly, many eating disorders and addictions have a root cause in an overactive HPA axis. If we are going to drink caffeinated drinks we should drink them early in the day and try to sip water throughout the day to keep our HPA axis in balance.
Interestingly, an under active HPA axis has been linked to SAD syndrome which can plague people in Winter months and Post Natal Depression; in pregnancy the placenta produces CRH which drops after birth and may be a cause of depression.
Some of us cope better with stress than others. The determinants of HPA activity are thought to be rooted in current stress, genetics and our early childhood environment. Some theories suggest our HPA axis is stronger in those who have experienced significant trauma in early childhood or adolescence which creates an exaggerated response in our adult years. Whilst we can’t do much to change our childhood experiences we can learn to see the value in them. Our emotions do literally make us sick. Looking after our emotions IS valid and it is important to communicate our feelings and ask for help when we need it. Our body can cope with stress when it is properly resolved and those molecules of emotion are dissolved.
How to Support Your HPA Axis!
Drink water. It sounds simple yet it can be incredibly hard to do when we hold stress and fear. Perhaps, the best way is to take take regular sips of warm water throughout the day. Train your mind to have a sip each time you have a stressful thought. It all adds up!
Eat mindfully! Digestion begins before we eat, the smells and sight of food prepares the body for food. We should prepare and eat food mindfully. Eat slowly and chew food until it is a liquid so that nutrients have a better chance of being absorbed. Cortisol is produced in response to stress so munching your way through a horror film at night is probably not so beneficial to de-stressing and having a good night of sleep!
Sleep is the best way to heal. Having a relaxing bath with some Lavender or Rose Essential Oil with Epsom salts is a great way to prepare the body for sleep. Ylang Ylang Essential Oil is super if you are wanting to develop intimacy in a relationship.
Try Meditation. It can be as simple as focusing on your breathing for five minutes or doing any task, mindfully. Simply walking, cleaning or doing a small task works really well if you focus in the moment. There are many meditations on YouTube, including The Five Minute Miracle which I love - you do have time.
If you struggle to be in the present moment and be mindful then affirmations can help. Your brain can only think of one thing at a time so by repeating a positive affirmation can help to halt negative thoughts. Affirmations such as ‘I am safe in grace and ease’, ‘I am happy and in this moment I have everything I need right now, in grace and ease’ are ones I use when I need too.
The analogy of a pond and fish are a good way of thinking about emotions. You are the pond and the fish are the emotions; the fish will swim in and out of your view. Just like emotions they come and go. Before reacting to a situation, stop, then ask yourself… do I need to react right now? What benefit comes from reacting? Try try find an alternative way of responding, not reacting. Responding and communicating your thoughts and feelings will stop others second guessing and reduce reactions from others.
Finally, each time you suffer with anxiety or stress ….play your favourite song and ask yourself - ‘what would the best me do right now? Go with that.
Try Energetic Healing? Emotions each have a frequency in the body and why Energetic healing, such as crystals, colour or music are beneficial for supporting our emotions and helping keep us grounded. Whilst Energetic Healing is still considered a pseudo-science anything that calms the body and helps us to become grounded so we respond rather than react IS beneficial. For example, crystal therapy might not directly heal our physical body, but it can heal our emotions which directly relate to our physical health and wellbeing. Emotions each resonate at a frequency and crystals can help to bring those emotions back into balance. Why not book at Crystal Therapy session or join one of our Energetic Taster Courses? I offer a free 20 minute session to help you work out which chakras are blocked or unbalanced and can provide recommendations, should you just want to dip your toe.
Is herbalism for you? Why not book a herbal consultation to consider an adaptogen? Adaptogens help you to better cope with stress. Should you wish to do our own research it is important to speak to a doctor should you have a pre-existing condition or taking medication as interactions could occur.
We offer so many different options for helping whether that is life-coaching, meditation, energetic healing, herbalism, nutrition, online meets and courses. Simply get in touch or take a look at our Services or Events page to find out more.