Stress is how the body and mind respond to any kind of demand or threat, be it physical, emotional, or mental. Experiencing the occasional stressor is unavoidable, and an accepted part of existing within the world. Stress can be associated with routines, such as school, work, or family responsibilities. It can also be associated with abrupt and emotional change, such as the death of a loved one, divorce, or illness. Regardless of what is causing it, stress can be experienced both physically and psychologically.
Why Do We Experience Stress?
When we experience stress, the nervous system instructs our bodies to release stress hormones, such as adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol.
- Adrenaline – produced by the medulla in the adrenal glands; dilates air passages to provide muscles with the necessary oxygen to either fight or flee, while contracting blood vessels and redirecting blood to the heart and lungs.
- Noradrenaline – a neurotransmitter in both the peripheral and central nervous systems; increases heart rate, blood pressure, and blood flow to the skeletal muscles, while releasing glucose from stored energy, and inhibiting the gastrointestinal system.
- Cortisol – steroid hormone, produced by the adrenal gland; increases glucose in the bloodstream, and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues.
These hormones result in a physiological change, allowing us to react to potential danger. This reaction is often referred to as our “fight-or-flight” response or our “stress response”. Once the potential threat or pressure is removed, the body naturally rebalances (i.e. returns to physiological homeostasis).
So, although often perceived as negative, it is the stress that has evolutionarily kept us safe, as we are biologically built for it in short waves. However, stress can easily become harmful when it occurs too often, for too long of a time, or becomes overwhelming.
How Does Stress Affect the Body?
The respiratory system nourishes cells with oxygen and eliminates carbon dioxide from the body. Stress immediately affects the respiratory system as a means of dispersing oxygen-rich blood to our heart, lungs, and larger muscles. If the stress does not subside, and our breaths continue to quicken, we can hyperventilate. Although this is most common amongst those who are prone to anxiety or panic attacks, anyone experiencing symptomatic stress can experience fearful shortness of breath, as the airway between the nose and lungs does constrict when experiencing extreme emotion.
Muscle tension is a reflexive response to stress – stress is introduced to the body, the muscles tense as a means of protection, and they release once the stress has passed. If the stress is consistent or overwhelming, and the muscles remain tense or contract too frequently, it can lead to chronic muscle pain, often in the jaw, neck, and shoulders.
The heart and blood vessels are the primary elements of the cardiovascular system, as their symbiotic relationship both nourishes and oxygenates various organs throughout the body. The heart and blood vessels are activated during our stress response – the heart rate increases with the release of stress hormones, and blood vessels dilate, thereby increasing our blood pressure. Once the stress or threat has passed, the body returns to its normal state, however, consistent stress can result in long-term damage, and increase one’s risk for hypertension, heart attack, and stroke. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men, women, and people of most ethnicities in the United States, with one person dying every 36 seconds. About 655,000 people die every year from heart disease, which equates to roughly one in every four deaths. Although stress isn't the sole cause of heart disease, we can assume it is a major contributor, as statistics show over 70% of Americans experience symptomatic stress.
Endocrine and Immune System
The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is a major neuroendocrine system, and is comprised of three components:
- Hypothalamus – a portion of the brain responsible for metabolic processes, and a variety of functions, but most notably, for connecting the nervous system to the endocrine system via the pituitary gland.
- Pituitary Gland – an endocrine gland, about the size of a pea, which protrudes off the bottom of the hypothalamus at the base of the brain. Secretes hormones, which manages growth, blood pressure, vitality, the functionality of our sex organs, thyroid glands, and our metabolism.
- Adrenal Glands – an endocrine gland found above the kidneys. Produces a multitude of hormones, namely adrenaline, aldosterone, and cortisol. Predominately responsible for our metabolism and immune system suppression.
These organs and their interactivity control not only our reaction to stress, but also monitor a myriad of functions within the body, including our digestion, immune system, energy levels, our emotional state, and the functionality of our sex organs.
During times of stress, the hypothalamus signals to the pituitary gland to secrete the adrenocorticotropin hormone (ACTH), which in turn stimulates the adrenal glands to both create and release cortisol hormones into the blood.
Cortisol fuels our energy levels by mobilizing glucose and fatty acids from the liver. Increased levels of cortisol is exceedingly useful during periods of stress, as it provides the necessary energy to overcome a particular challenge. However, cortisol also suppresses the immune system and inflammation pathways, which although useful during threatening situations, can otherwise wreak havoc on our immune system, if the stress is either too frequent or constant. Hindered communication between the immune system and the HPA axis has been linked to countless health conditions to include chronic fatigue, metabolic disorders, depression, anxiety, and immune disorders.
4 Ways to Relieve Stress
Take Deep, Controlled Breaths Throughout Your Day
How you breathe deeply impacts how you feel. Don’t believe us? Try taking very deep, quick breaths, in through your nose, and out through your mouth of 30sec. How do you feel? Is your focus narrowing? Do you feel tingling or pins and needles? Do you feel your heart racing and your body temperature changing? Your environment and circumstances have not changed. The only thing you changed was your breath.
When we begin to feel stress, simply taking a few deep breaths, and rolling your neck and shoulders, can signal to your body that there is no threat, and you are safe.
Visit Your Special Relaxation Spot or Participate in Your Favorite Activity
Do you have a place where you go to relax – a cozy sofa, a favorite room, a secret spot in the woods? Do you have an activity or process that brings you peace – baking, playing with a pet, or reading a good book? Our environments play a significant role in how we feel. It’s why when our homes are messy or our desks are cluttered, we have a difficult time focusing. Recognizing a stressful environment, and removing ourselves from it is not only a sign of strength, but it is also a deserved kindness.
Ensuring Lazy and Effortless Days
We have a tendency to cram as many errands and activities as we can into our waking hours, oftentimes keeping ourselves busy and distracted. However, there is something lovely about allowing a day to unfold naturally and unhurriedly. Lazy days may seem selfish, however, the exact opposite is true. Our capacity to care for those around us is only possible if we allow our bodies to rest, and regain their strength.
Daily Use of CBD
There are times when stress becomes overwhelming, and our mechanisms for relieving stress fall short. We have all been there, and have experienced that sense of fear and dread. In those instances, and even as a preventative, CBD may help in mitigating the life-threatening potential of stress.
Cannabidiol (CBD) is a cannabinoid, which is a naturally occurring chemical compound produced by both the hemp and marijuana plant (Cannabis Sativa). Similar to the cannabis plant, which produces over 100 different cannabinoids, the human body also produces cannabinoids (or endocannabinoids). These endocannabinoids are carried throughout the body by a series of receptors known as the Endocannabinoid System (ECS). The ECS is responsible for regulating a variety of physiological and cognitive processes. However, homeostasis between the mind and body is always its primary objective.
Research indicates that at high concentrations, CBD activates the 5-HT1A (hydroxytryptamine) serotonin receptor, which may result in CBD's calming effect. CBD can also enhance or inhibit how a receptor transmits its signal. Scientists report CBD interacts with the GABA-A receptor by increasing the receptor's ability to bind with its agonist, gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in the central nervous system. Anxiety medication (such as a benzodiazepine) works on GABA receptor transmission, and CBD also works on GABA, but more naturally, by modifying the shape of GABA-A in a way that magnifies the tranquil effects of GABA.
We speak often on the healing benefits of CBD, specifically as a means of mitigating stress. As the goal cannot be to avoid stress altogether (for that is an impossibility), we must instead be patient with ourselves, and take the time to examine how we experience stress. Do we feel stress in our breath (quick, shallow breathing)? Do we feel stress in our bodies (in our neck, shoulders, heart)? When we become aware of the stress, how do we tend to it (deep breathing, exercising, CBD)?
How we both perceive stress, and how we tend to it, can make all the difference in both our physical and mental wellbeing.