Wellness Wednesday: Stress and the Importance of Staying Balanced

Published 3:09 pm Wednesday, March 22, 2023

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Perhaps one of the most relevant effectors of an individual’s overall health, stress remains a fairly familiar concept to all of us. Stressors, things that cause the body to deviate from its homeostatic balance (aka, our “happy place” or state in which everything is “just right”), come in all shapes and sizes and at all times of the day. Undoubtedly, as these stressors increase, overall stress levels continue to rise to a level above what our bodies are capable of handling, leading to an expedited decline in health among the population. However, despite statistics regarding the previous matter, not all stress is actually bad. Our bodies naturally handle stress in specific, physiologic ways as a natural, protective mechanism and over millions of years, have adapted in incredible ways. Thus to say, growth of any sort imperatively relies on just the right amount of stress. 

First, what exactly is stress and how does our body physiologically react to it? As aforementioned, stressors consist of anything that throws our body out of balance, and include two different categories: physical and processive. A physical stressor typically causes some sort of pain from an outside source, such as stepping on a nail, getting a papercut, or being attacked by a wild animal. A processive stressor requires more mental thought process and evaluation of certain information from the outside world, before the physical stressor affects the person. For example, seeing a wild animal rushing towards you is enough to elicit a stress response before anything actually happens. Your palms begin to sweat, your heart races, your eyes grow big. All a result of your sympathetic nervous system preparing your body for “fight or flight.” In brief explanation, this branch of the nervous system stimulates different parts of the body in order to help optimally utilize energy and blood flow needed to escape the situation. As you can imagine, this is very helpful and necessary when escaping a raging lion; however, not so much if you are preparing for an important presentation. 

Beyond the neurological phenomena in the body’s stress response, hormones play a specific role as well. Glandular secretions in the brain release a hormone that then stimulates the adrenal glands in the kidneys to release cortisol, the glucocorticoid hormone that travels through the blood, affecting many organs and their functions. Cortisol’s main function is to release glucose into the bloodstream, which our body then uses as extra fuel for cells experiencing overactivity during an emergency. 

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Although we often associate “stress” and “cortisol” with bad situations, it holds immense benefit! Without it, we would not effectively escape a dangerous situation, as our body wouldn’t produce the effective force needed to avoid it. Furthermore, eustress, or good stress, may provide a similar response, but the body’s overall adaptivity to the response leads to increased growth, strength, and more over time (as long as the dose of stress remains controlled and balanced). If the amount of stress in life remains unbalanced or unregulated and at high, chronic levels, a state of distress will likely occur. 

So, how do we manage stress in the way that keeps it beneficial, since we now know that it’s pretty much unavoidable? Take this analogy, for example. Think of yourself as a bucket, filled with water. The water represents a certain amount of stress. Ideally, you want the bucket to contain just the right amount of water (not too much, and not too little) to promote healthy stability and growth. The bucket lies beneath a faucet, filling the bucket with water (stress), and the bucket simultaneously releases some water through a spigot at the bottom, thus creating a balanced amount of water within the bucket. The spigot, in a way, represents rest and regeneration. This could include prayer or meditation, light physical activity, reading, or many other avenues that bring you joy and a sense of peace. 

All too often, humans reject the necessary part of this analogy, leading to a harmful stress overload that ultimately limits their full potential. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. The phrase, “Success doesn’t sleep,” is a lie! You must give your body adequate rest in order for it to operate in a sustainable state: growing optimally and steadily, without the plummet from overload. Stress is unavoidable, but with the right strategies, you can welcome it with a warm embrace, allowing it to help you, not hurt you.