Let’s Talk About Stress

November 18, 2021

By Rebecca Small, Wellness Coordinator, Centre for Growth & Harmony

Let’s Talk About Stress

First, please take a second to unclench your jaw. Now, drop your shoulders and notice if there is any stress you are carrying with you.

For many of us, there are some subtle, and perhaps not-so-subtle, signs that stress is showing up in our lives; our bodies can be great messengers on that front. But what exactly is stress? We hear the word in every day conversations, and likely relate to experiencing it on some level. Simply stated, it is a natural, biological response to real or perceived threat. During these times, our brain and autonomic nervous system jump into action, releasing hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which prime us for action as a means of protecting us. Our heart rate elevates, blood and glucose surges away from our gut and into our muscles, and our focus becomes laser sharp.

With that in mind, we can see that stress can actually be helpful despite the general perception that it is a negative state. The neat thing is that the physiological response to stress, for all intents and purposes, is the same as it is to excitement.

Imagine for a second that you’re at a hockey game, and your team makes an amazing play and scores. What can you notice in your body? Likely, your heart pounds, your muscles tense up, and your breathing becomes shallow and rapid. You jump up and cheer, smile, and feel generally awesome. Now, imagine you’re hiking and see a cougar close by. What can you notice in your body? You guessed it, the same physical sensations. The difference? Simply how we perceive the situation and the responses we’re experiencing.

This knowledge can be particularly helpful when it comes to common life stressors such as navigating work and family life, and juggling errands and other demands of daily life. When we’re aware of the physical feelings and thoughts we experience under these circumstances, we can start to recognize the signs of stress earlier, and in turn, use techniques to help deal with it. For example, simple breathing exercises, taking breaks, exercising, prioritizing needs, or setting boundaries can help reduce stress.

But when does stress become a problem? While we’re generally fairly adaptive when dealing with acute stress, such as an impending deadline or an important presentation (notice your heart rate drop and muscles relax shortly after you hit ‘Send’ or finish speaking?), exposure to chronic or repeated stress can have some serious negative impacts on our health. Prolonged surges in cortisol and other stress hormones can lead to burnout, depression, increased risk of cardiovascular disease, and weight gain to name a few.1

If you are noticing that you’ve become less able to cope with stress, or that your physical or mental health has started to decline, it might be time to see a medical practitioner or mental health professional. Reaching out for support can be challenging, especially when we’re already struggling, but remember that taking one step can help move towards a better, healthier state.

1. Mariotti, A. (2015). The effects of chronic stress on Health: New Insights Into the molecular mechanisms of brain–body communication. Future Science OA1(3). https://doi.org/10.4155/fso.15.21