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How Your Body Reacts To Stress & How To Feel Better During The Most Stressful Time?


In December 2019, the first case of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) was reported in Wuhan City, China. Since then, this infectious disease has continued to hit the world by spreading rapidly across the globe. As of March 2021, there have been more than 100 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, including over 2 million death worldwide. In facts, the population who has been affected by this pandemic is beyond these numbers.

We are experiencing drastic changes in our life. Loss of loved ones, loss of jobs and incomes due to economic recession, isolation and social distancing as a safety measure to prevent the spread of the virus among the community as well as constantly worry about the health and safety of loved ones has resulted in emotional tension including the feelings of stress and anxiety.

What Happens When Our Body Is Stressed?

The body works wondrously. When it is challenged by an emotional state or a hostile environment, it reacts to these stresses by releasing hormones that are controlled by the hypothalamus, a small region located near the base of your brain. The stress hormones trigger the body to respond in a way that protects it with a surge of energy. Subsequently, the body undergoes physiological changes, such as your brain alertness increases, your heart beats faster, your blood pressure goes up, your breath quickens and your muscle tense up to respond to any events that perceived as ‘dangers’ or stressful.1

Is Stress Good Or Bad?

Stress has positive effects when it forces the body to adapt and increases our adaptation in coping stress or uses it to overcome lethargy, enhances performances, as well as making lifestyle changes to maintain optimal health.2

However, stress turns out negative when it exceeds our ability to cope, exhausts the body systems and causes behavioural or physical problems.2 This condition usually happens when the body is experiencing repeated and continuous stress for a longer period of time. Numerous health problems such as heart diseases, high blood pressure, digestive disorders, impaired immunity and depression are often associated with the body undergoing persistent long-term stress.

Stress & Brain Function

Stress has a direct effect on the central nervous system which consists of the brain and spinal cord. Long-term stress may cause structural changes in different parts of the brain, thereby affecting one’s memory, cognition and learning.

It is believed that mild stress can temporarily improve brain function including memory. However, when it has persisted in a long time and passes beyond a threshold, it can lead to cognitive, behavioural and mood disorders.3

Excess production of stress hormones also causes difficulty for the brain to recall memories. This is due to the disturbance in the hippocampus (an area of the brain that has the highest level of response to stress) in processing the data.3

Stress & Respiratory Function

When under stress or anxiety, your breathing will quicken in order to take in more oxygen to supply the body. This will sometimes leave you feeling breathless. Long-term exposure to stress can also enhance the allergic inflammatory response which worsens the symptoms of respiratory conditions such as asthma and chronic lung diseases.4

Stress & Heart Function

The heart beats faster when under stress. This is due to the activation of the nervous system that increases heart rate and contraction, as well as the constriction of blood vessels. The widening of blood vessels can enhance blood flow and increase oxygen supply to your muscles so that it gives you strength for action. On the other hand, constriction leads to the narrowing of the blood vessels, thereby raising the blood pressure. High blood pressure forces your heart to work harder. Hence, if this happens regularly, it will increase the risks of developing heart health issues, such as heart attack and atherosclerosis (buildup of plaques that result in hardening and narrowing of your arteries).3

Stress & Digestive Function

Binge eating or loss of appetite is common in people who are under stress. The hormones such as adrenaline (also known as noradrenaline) and cortisol are released during a stressful situation. Adrenaline has shown to suppress appetite during acute stress, whereas cortisol tends to increase the appetite and stimulates the urge to eat, especially when the stress persists.5

Studies have also shown that stress can affect the food absorption process, the stomach acid secretion and triggers the inflammation of the gastrointestinal system.6,7 It was found that those with stressful lifestyles are more likely to develop acid reflux symptoms.8 Other gastrointestinal disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), intestinal inflammation and peptic ulcers are also linked with stress.9

Stress & Immune Function

When responding to stress, the body will activate the immune system. In acute stress, the immune cells will move to tissues that are likely to suffer damages and protect the body from microbes and thereby aid in wound healing. Over time, though, the increased stress hormones will also weaken your immunity. This explains why people who under long-term stress are more vulnerable to infections, has slower healing and recovery rate.10

How To Manage Your Stress?

The longer the duration of stress, the greater the negative impacts on the body function.  Thus, managing stress is crucial for your overall well-being. Regardless of the source of your stress, be it worrying about the uncertain future due to the pandemic, or long-term work, relationship, family or personal-related stress, it is important to always focus on the actions or solutions that are within your control. Here are some tips to guide you through your difficult times:

  1. Acknowledge your feelings

Try to push yourself away from a negative emotion or convince yourself that you’re ok is not going to be ok. Always remind yourself that it is fine and normal to be vulnerable. Stay open when comes to addressing your true feelings and let the thoughts or feelings come and go by themselves. Over time, you’ll have better control of these emotions and without getting overwhelmed by them.

  1. Diverge your focus

Gives your mind a break. Instead of keep thinking of the situations that you may not be able to change, you can shift your focus on things that you can do. Look for activities or things that generate your greatest happiness as well as calms your mind. For example, take up new hobbies (reading, listening to music, gardening, etc), learn a new skill (learn a language, learn how to play an instrument, attend cooking class, etc), exercises, yoga, and meditation. Sometimes, it can be as simple as getting out of the house and get some fresh air.

  1. Connect with supportive people

There is no shame in seeking help. By sharing your concerns and problems with supportive family and friends, you may find a way to deal with stressful situations. Even if sharing may not always help to solve your problems, it will provide comfort and ease your feelings.

  1. Stick with a routine

Plan your day and stick to it. Back to the basics such as plan the time to start your day, time for meals, time for works, time for break and time to get to bed. Slot in activities such as your hobbies, exercises, or classes in your leisure time which gives your body and mind a break from your negative emotions. Remember not to overschedule your day. You don’t want a faster pace to add up your stressfulness. 

  1. Supplementation

Certain natural supplements can help in managing stress. For example, l-theanine, an amino acid found in Green Tea, has shown to be effective in reducing stress and anxiety in people who constantly exposed to stressful conditions.11 Besides, l-theanine can also improve sleeping quality by promoting deeper sleep.12

Alternatively, you may try supplementing Ginseng, an adaptogen that helps the body to cope with day-to-day stress. The research found that ginseng helps to stabilize the nervous system and enhance brain function in individuals with high-stress levels.13

 

 

References:

  1. Mariotti, A. The effects of chronic stress on health: new insights into the molecular mechanisms of brain-body communication. Future Science OA. 2015;1(3):FSO23.
  2. Salleh MR. Life event, stress and illness. Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences. 2008;15(4):9-18.
  3. Yaribeygi H, Panahi Y, Sahraei H, Johnston TP, Sahebkar A. The impact of stress on body function: a review. EXCLI Journal. 2017;16:1057-1072.
  4. Forsythe P, Ebeling C, Gordon JR, Befus AD, Vliagoftis H. Opposing effects of short- and long-term stress on airway inflammation. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. 2004;169(2):220-226.
  5. Ans AH, Anjum I, Satija V, Inayat A, Asghar Z, Akram I, et al. Neurohormonal regulation of appetite and its relationship with stress: a mini literature review. Cureus. 2018;10(7):e3032.
  6. Collins SM. Modulation of intestinal inflammation by stress: basic mechanisms and clinical relevance (IV). Am J Physiol. 2001;280:G315-8.
  7. Nabavizadeh F, Vahedian M, Sahraei H, Adeli S, Salimi E. Physical and psychological stress have similar effects on gastric acid and pepsin secretions in rat. J Stress Physiol Biochem. 2011;7:164-74.
  8. Jansson C, Wallander MA, Johansson S, Johnsen R, Hveem K. Stressful psychosocial factors and symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease: a population-based study in Norway. Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology. 2010;45(1):21-29.
  9. Konturek PC, Brzozowski T, Konturek SJ. Stress and the gut: pathophysiology, clinical consequences, diagnostic approach and treatment options. J Physiol Pharmacol. 2011;62:591-9.
  10. Schneiderman N, Ironson G, Siegel SD. Stress and health: psychological, behavioral, and biological determinants. Annu Rev Clin Psychol. 2005;1:607-628.
  11. Williams JL, Everett JM, D’Cunha NM, Sergi D, Georgousopoulou EN, et al. The effects of green tea amino acid l-theanine consumption on the ability to manage stress and anxiety levels: a systematic review. Plant Foods Hum Nutr. 2020;75(1):12-23.
  12. Unno K, Noda S, Kawasaki Y, Yamada H, Morita A, Iguchi K, et al. Reduced stress and improved sleep quality caused by green tea are associated with a reduced caffeine content. Nutrients. 2017;9(7):777.
  13. Baek JH, Heo JY, Fava M, Mischoulon D, Choi KW, Na EJ, et al. Effect of Korean red ginseng in individuals exposed to high stress levels; a 6-week, double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial. Journal of Ginseng Research. 2019;43(3):402-407.