Why Learning To Recognise Overwhelming Stress Is The Key To Happiness

Picture this: You’re at work, it’s only three hours in, but you’re already craving half a block of Whittaker’s chocolate. Are you just having an unhealthy craving - or are you experiencing low blood sugar because you’re stressed up to your eyeballs? Recognising the physiological symptoms of overwhelming stress gives you the power to take control. If you’re irritable, emotional or exhausted, take note. Maybe this isn’t something the band-aid of an early night and a good sleep will fix.

Happiness comes from a wide range of factors in our lives. But acknowledging your stress and knowing its source is a brilliant step in the right direction.

What Are Your Adrenals

Most of us recognise that our adrenals have something to do with stress and our response to it. 

Your adrenals are part of your endocrine system - which is a chemical messenger system consisting of glands that produce hormones. Your hypothalamus pituitary gland and your adrenals work together with the thyroid delivering messages throughout our body (commonly referred to as the HPA axis).

Your adrenal glands are found just above the kidneys and have two parts; an outer part (the cortex) that produces steroid hormones and the inner (medulla). The hormones our adrenal glands produce travel throughout the body and to specific target organs, which signals that organ to produce another hormone or start another action.

Everything in your body is connected. You receive messages back from those target organs that regulate and produce the original hormones. We call that a feedback loop. This is an essential part of your well-being. It maintains balanced organ function and hormone levels and is a process called homeostasis. If all is well, you produce hormones when stressed, get out of the stress and then return back to ‘normal’.

The Hormones You Need To Know About

Our adrenals are responsible for producing the following:

Adrenaline – this hormone gets a bad rap at times, but it is the one responsible for our flight or fight response and the increase in blood flow to our muscles, heart output and blood glucose release. This is all to get us out of stress quickly.

Aldosterone - Aldosterone causes the kidneys to hold onto more sodium, which leads to more water staying in your body (fluid retention). The more fluid the body holds on to, the higher the blood pressure may become. Aldosterone also directly affects the heart and blood vessels – elevated levels can increase blood pressure, pulse and anxiety.

Cortisol - Cortisol is a steroid hormone controlled and released by the HPA axis. Almost every cell contains receptors for cortisol. So, cortisol can have many different actions depending on which type of cells it is acting upon. Some actions include controlling the body’s blood sugar levels and regulating metabolism, acting as an anti-inflammatory, influencing memory formation, controlling salt and water balance, and influencing blood pressure and immune function, among many other roles.

Blood levels of cortisol vary dramatically but generally are high in the morning when we wake up and fall throughout the day (forming a diurnal rhythm. In response to stress, extra cortisol is released to help the body to respond appropriately.

🌿Related5 Herbs You Need To Try For Hormone Balance


Prolonged And Overwhelming Stress

The aim of these steroids is to be the messengers to keep us safe and out of danger. But what happens when our stress becomes overwhelming and chronic, or we struggle to adapt and regain balance.

When you are under acute and sudden stress, your body will adapt to cope. It will increase its adrenal output to increase blood pressure - pushing blood to your brain and body and sharpening your responses.

But it becomes harder for your body to maintain this balance under prolonged overwhelming stress. This is where we start to see the signs of chronic stress. Symptoms can include inflammation, sugar cravings, need for stimulants, a faster pulse and a racing heart even at rest, and general fatigue. If you don't try to mitigate the stress, your HPA becomes less responsive to the messages it gets (hormones).

As a result, your cortisol levels stay elevated, which reduces your immune and sex hormone production as you produce more cortisol. You then need more stimulants to keep your adrenals pumping as we start seeing blood sugar highs and lows to maintain this hormone production. This is when you notice you'll consume more caffeine and sugar to keep up your energy.

As you try to get through the overwhelming stress and it becomes more chronic, you might start seeing other symptoms, such as your skin and hair suffering. You also become less resilient to other stressors or issues and probably find everything hard to cope with. You just can't get back to normal.

Stress Can Look Different For Everyone

We all have different things we can cope with, and the overwhelming impact stress has on the body may differ from person to person. This is why stress can look different on different people.

For instance, some people cry when they are stressed. It might seem like an insignificant thing for them to cry over, but to that person, that is how they show their stress. Some people might just explode, and their stress might look like anger - but this is how they respond to the extra load. 

Others are irritated, and others seem depressed. We are trying to say that there is no one way to ‘be stressed’ or show stress. This way, we can not only start to recognise it in ourselves but also recognise it in others - and when we can do this, we're on a path to a happier and healthier life.

One thing plants can really help with is supporting the body, in particular, the HPA axis, to better cope with the fluctuations of stress. Plants can help gently support the body (while not adding to the load) to build your resilience again. There are herbs to help support every aspect of your life; from anxiety to low mood. We will cover the best herbs that help stress in our final blog in the series next week. 

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