We all experience stress from time-to-time, so here we explain why it occurs.
The word ‘stress’ is used so frequently that we all have a general awareness of what it means, but to really understand how it occurs and what you can do about it, is worth digging into it a little more deeply.
What is stress anyway?
At a physiological level, it’s generally accepted that the stress response is the body’s way of reacting to threats. It’s an interaction between yourself and the situations and environments you find yourself in, and tends to arise whenever you feel unsafe or that you lack the resources to enable you to cope with whatever you’re facing.
The sequence of events that occurs is sometimes explained using a model called the General Adaptation Syndrome, which is based on the theory that one of the body’s goals is to maintain a state of homeostasis (balance). Although every individual’s reaction to stress is different (and may change according to circumstances), in simplified terms, it can be summed up in these stages:
- You’re travelling along nicely, in a normal state of balance (homeostasis)
- Something stressful occurs, triggering a state of alarm, accompanied by a temporary decline in physical and mental function
- Quickly afterwards, you move into stress resistance, in which your body aims to operate at peak efficiency in order to deal with the crisis. This is the fight-or-flight response: a time when you become alert, energised and ready for action, physically and mentally
- However, peak efficiency can only be sustained for so long before your reserves become depleted and you enter the overload or exhaustion phase of the stress response. This is when you need to rest, recover and replenish your capacity to fight another day
How we adapt to cope with stress
When it occurs in short, sharp bursts, stress adaptation is designed to help make you increasingly capable of coping with stress over time.
An example of a healthy adaptation to stress occurs when you embark on a fitness regime in which you repeatedly put your body under stress, take time to recover afterwards, and gradually increase your aerobic capacity or muscular fitness.
However if you don’t fully recover from the resistance phase of the stress response because you don’t get enough rest, don’t have the personal skills to cope with stress appropriately, or are overloaded by repeated or chronic (ongoing) stressful episodes, your ability to respond to stress in a healthy way may become compromised.
In that situation, instead of returning to its natural, healthy state of homeostasis, the exhaustion phase of the stress response may persist, and over time, may reduce your ability to adapt to stress and ultimately impact on your general wellbeing.
Rest and recovery are vital
Once you become aware of the importance of the recovery phase of the stress response, it’s easy to understand why the first step to managing and bouncing back from stress is to make sure you’re getting enough rest.
Wherever possible, avoid continuing to push yourself after a stressful time, and instead give yourself permission to rest and restore your energy so you can rebuild your physical and emotional resilience.
Herbs traditionally used to improve stress adaptation in Ayurvedic medicine
In Ayurvedic medicine, holy basil (also known as sacred basil or tulsi) and ashwagandha (also known as withania) are traditionally taken to improve stress adaptation – in other words, to build resistance to stress.
In clinical research, a specific holy basil extract was shown to help manage symptoms of stress and mild anxiety such as fatigue, disturbed sleep and cognitive impairment (including forgetfulness)1.
Meanwhile, ashwagandha is traditionally used to reduce symptoms of stress and worry in Ayurvedic medicine, including mild anxiety, tension, fatigue, nervousness, restlessness, irritability and brain fog (cognitive impairment).
Calming the mind and spirit with traditional Chinese medicine
In Chinese medicine, polygala is traditionally used to calm the mind and spirit and relieve stress-related symptoms including mild anxiety, sleep disturbance, mild palpitations and forgetfulness.
Magnesium and stress
In the body, magnesium is involved with several stress pathways. During acute stress, it helps reduce the adverse effects of stress. However, its levels may decline when stress becomes chronic because it’s excreted from the body via the urine in greater quantities during stressful times2.
If you’re under pressure, consider taking a magnesium supplement, ideally choosing a formula containing magnesium in a highly bioavailable form (such as magnesium glycinate), accompanied by B-group vitamins – especially vitamin B5, which helps maintain healthy stress responses in the body.
- Saxena, RC et al. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med, 2012;2012894509. [Financial sponsor: Natural Remedies].
- Cuciureanu, MD, and Vink, R. (2011) Magnesium and stress. In Magnesium in the Central Nervous System, (Eds, Vink, R. & Nechifor, M.) University of Adelaide Press, Adelaide (AU).
Giselle’s integrative approach
Giselle Cooke, a medically-trained holistic health consultant, utilises an integrative approach to managing stress conditions. This includes relaxation therapies, calming herbs and a highly nutritious, unprocessed diet with a variety of fruit, vegetables and protein sources. Superfoods like maca, spirulina, pomegranate and berries along with a predominantly organic diet will optimise your body’s nutrient stores, helping to replenish and repair stress-affected tissues and organs. Also useful are krill, oily fish and flaxseed as these contain essential fatty acids that help to buffer your nervous system against the impact of stress, preventing chronic anxiety states and reducing phobias. A comprehensive diet high in B-complex vitamins and cofactors such as choline, the minerals potassium and magnesium, and the amino acids lysine and glutamine, will also help to balance your nervous system. Consider taking a good stress nutritional supplement, which includes high levels of B-vitamins, in particular a blend of nicotinamide and nicotinic acid (B3), as well as calcium pantothenate (B5) and pyridoxine hydrochloride (B6) that are required for cortisol metabolism.