Science is often proving things that we already know. Intuitively. So what useful scientific findings are being uncovered in the area of stress?
We talk about stress and live with stress as a normal part of life in the 21st Century. But the type of stress that we deal with has been changing over time, and the physiological implications are pretty interesting.
Firstly, this feeling of stress isn’t only in our mind. It has a physiological component too, which gives us the chemical resources and energy to push through our challenges and react to the stressful situation – whatever that may be.
This stress response can be good. Especially when we are under physical stress. It gives us the hormones we need to get through the situation. So what happens? The body releases adrenalin and cortisol, which helps our body react with speed and force, and gives us fuel for energy. During physical stress our heart rate and oxygen levels show we are using the fuel the cortisol releases as we engage in physical activity. It is a very useful process.
The problem comes when we are not using the fuel as fast as the cortisol is supplying it, and instead it diverts to unwanted physical responses. This happens when we are under psychological stress; when we don’t need that physical energy to run or to fight. Now the over production of cortisol which isn’t burned as extra fuel can do damaging things without a useful outlet, like break down bone, leading to osteoporosis. It has also been linked to diabetes, heart disease and neurological diseases among other things. Not so useful.
Many people working in sedentary jobs are likely to push themselves more aggressively mentally and psychologically, while their physical capability is barely challenged, if at all. Is this you, by any chance? When did you really work your body, physically? And when did you last leave work mentally exhausted?
What this imbalance of mental and physical exertion does is compound the problem: the body is left without a useful outlet for its heavy production of cortisol.
Enter: physical exercise. Not only can it be used as a valuable mental break, but putting the body through the stress of exercise allows it to utilise the energy being created, and also trains it to better handle psychological stress when it next appears. Double-whammy.
So although we sometimes need a good dose of hormones to get us firing through to the end of the day, we also need to give our body the chance to work them through our system.
It is another good reason to make exercise a daily habit. As you watch your strength and fitness build, you can also watch your stress levels reduce. I’m calling that a massive bonus!
Author: Nicola Deakin