picture of a woman showing signs of stress
Do you have a stress problem?

Problems with Mood or Stress?

What is the Definition of Stress?

Stress is defined as a state of mental, emotional, and/or physical tension as a result of very adverse or very demanding conditions.  Examples include having a very demanding boss or a tight deadline at work, working long hours or night shifts, a student writing a college exam, living in extreme weather conditions, or running a marathon.

What are the Top 10 Causes of Life Stress?

The top 10 stressors in life for an adult, ranked from highest to lowest are considered to be:

  1. The death of a spouse
  2. Divorce
  3. Separation
  4. Imprisonment
  5. Death of a close family member
  6. Illness
  7. Marriage
  8. Job loss
  9. Marital reconciliation
  10. Retirement

What are the Major Types of Stress?

When we use that word, most people associate it with mental stress or feelings of worry or anxiety.  But it can be more than mental or emotional, there are physical stressors as well.  The following are the six major forms of stress: physical, chemical, mental, emotional, nutritional, and trauma.

Physical Stress

Your body is stressed physically by intense exertion such as running a marathon or doing a triathlon.  Manual labor such as working in a factory or delivering furniture or heavy cargo is physically stressful.  Lack of sleep or insomnia imposes stress on your body.  Traveling across time zones and adapting to different hours is stressful.  Working night shifts is another physical stressor.  Your body has an internal clock that operates based on daylight hours.  Your body functions optimally when you work with your internal clock rather than against it. Physical illness stresses your body’s repair mechanisms and your immune system.

Chemical Stress

Exposing your body to chemicals, toxins and pollutants impose stress on the organs that break them down and excrete them.  Drugs, alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and environmental pollutants such as pesticides and herbicides tax your liver and kidneys.

Mental Stress

With so much exposure to external input through information technology, our brains are taxed trying to take it all in.  Add to that our self-imposed efforts to be perfect over-achievers.  Access to information (sometimes inaccurate information or misinformation) leads to worry about health and disease.  The pressure to achieve in high school, college, or in the workplace creates more mental strife.

Emotional Stress

Feelings of anger, guilt, loneliness, sadness, or fear place an emotional burden on our psyche.

Nutritional Stress

Eating poorly, eating on the run, grabbing takeout, wolfing food down at our desks, and eating highly processed foods all put a nutritional strain on our bodies. Consumption of food allergies triggers the release of adrenaline which signifies a stressful event to your system. The depletion of vitamins and minerals in our food supply results in a depleted body that doesn’t function at its best or struggles to function at all.

Physical Trauma

Physical trauma from an accident or injury, a burn, or surgery stresses your body’s immune system to repair the damage.  Physical pain or being incapacitated as a result of an injury adds to mental and emotional stress and causes a lack of sleep.

How Does Stress Affect Your Body?

The physical effects of immediate or acute stress include:

  • muscle tension
  • an increased heart rate
  • more rapid breathing
  • dilation of some blood vessels and constriction of others
  • diversion of resources away from the organs that are not essential under stress (reproductive, digestive), and toward the ones that are (heart, lungs, large muscles)

The physical effects of long-term stress include:

How Does Stress Affect Your Brain?

The mental and emotional effects of stress include anger, irritability, depressionanxiety or panic attacks, forgetfulness, difficulty with memory, focus or concentration, and even neurological disorders like dementia, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s.

What are the Signs of Stress?

Signs of acute stress include:

  • an increased heart rate
  • rapid, shallow breathing
  • sweating
  • increased blood pressure and
  • dilated pupils

What Happens When You Feel Stressed?

Under stress, your body releases two main stress hormones, adrenaline (or epinephrine) and cortisol. Adrenaline release prepares your body to fight the danger or run away from it.  This is your “fight or flight” response.  When stress continues, cortisol is produced to help as a more prolonged coping mechanism.

What are the Symptoms of Long-Term or Chronic Stress?

Long-term stress leads to more physical and emotional symptoms such as the following warning signs of stress:

  • Feeling agitated, frustrated, or moody
  • Feeling overwhelmed, like you have too much on your plate, more than you can handle
  • Having difficulty calming your thoughts and relaxing
  • Low self-esteem
  • Feeling lonely, worthless, or depressed
  • Avoiding socializing, isolation
  • Low energy
  • Headaches or migraines
  • Digestive problems such as diarrhea, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome or nausea
  • Aches and pains
  • Muscle tension
  • Chest pain
  • Irregular or rapid heartbeat, palpitations
  • Insomnia
  • Frequent colds and infections
  • Loss of sexual desire and/or ability
  • Nervousness or anxiety
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Dry mouth and difficulty swallowing
  • Clenched jaw, TMJ or grinding your teeth
  • Constant worrying
  • Racing thoughts
  • Difficulty with memory, focus or concentration
  • Poor judgment
  • Pessimism
  • Changes in appetite — either not eating or overeating
  • Procrastination
  • Increasing dependence on alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes
  • Nervous behaviors, such as nail-biting, skin picking or fidgeting

What Diseases are Caused by Stress?

Stress has been linked to all of the major chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.  The chronic release of stress hormones increases blood sugar levels, heart rate, and blood pressure.  Over the long term, these effects damage your blood vessels, create insulin resistance problems, and stimulate abnormal cell proliferation.  Intense or long-term stress also leads to infertility problems.  When your body perceives stress, it directs blood flow and resources away from non-essential functions like reproduction, prioritizing vital functions and muscles that will aid survival.

How Best to Deal with Stress

Obviously, if at all possible, it is best to remove the source of the stress.  Solutions for that may involve finding a less demanding job, improving your relationships, and asking others for help.  If it’s not possible to remove the source of the stress, then the following stress management tips will help to relieve your stress.

12 Need to Know Stress Management Tips

Deep breathing

Whenever you are feeling stressed or overwhelmed, stop for 30 seconds and take 5 deep breaths, all the way into your belly and all the way out.  Deep breathing helps to stimulate your vagus nerve.  Your vagus nerve sends signals directly to your brain.  Stimulating it through humming, chanting “Om”, or deep breathing helps to shift the nervous system away from the fight or flight mode, to the parasympathetic or relaxation mode.

Massage Therapy

Similar to deep breathing, massage therapy has been shown to shift your nervous system out of the adrenaline-pumping fight or flight mode and into the calming and relaxing parasympathetic mode.

Shut down after 8 p.m.

Your body operates on a daily cycle, dictated by daylight and darkness.  Working with that diurnal cycle is less stressful to your system than working against it.  It also helps your body to rejuvenate in preparation for the next day.

Prioritize Sleep

Not only should you shut down electronics, work, and start relaxing by 8 p.m., but you should also aim to be asleep by 10 p.m. to allow time for a good 8 hours of sleep per night. Sleep is restorative and helps you cope with anything that may be thrown at you.  Lack of sleep often drives more self-destructive behaviors like poor diet, lack of exercise, and reaching for sugar and caffeine.


If you can’t rid yourself of the source of your stress, you will cope with it better if you exercise than if you don’t.  Even better, exercise outside.  Research shows that “forest bathing” or “nature bathing” lowers inflammation, oxidative stress, and cortisol levels.

Go Easy on Your Body

Remove stressors to your systems like caffeine, nicotine, environmental pollutants, alcohol, recreational drugs, and junk food.

Avoid Food Sensitivities

If you have identified a food that doesn’t agree with you, don’t eat it.  If you can’t identify them, we can help. See our naturopathic doctor.

Relieve Physical Pain

Use all the healing methods at your disposal to relieve pain and address the cause of the problem including acupuncture, Traditional Chinese Medicine, chiropractic, massage therapy, herbal medicine, osteopathy, and nutrition. If you haven’t tried all of these yet, you really should. Any of them could be the solution you are looking for to relieve pain.

Relieve emotional pain

Psychotherapy is an effective way to address emotional pain and develop strategies to deal with it more effectively.

Support the systems that help your body deal with stress

Your adrenal glands are your stress glands.  They are what help your body to deal with stress.  They communicate with your brain via your HPA axis. Under stress, your HPA axis fires up to increase the secretion of adrenaline and cortisol, increase your heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar.  For the HPA axis to function healthily, it needs lots of vitamin C, vitamin B5, and B6, magnesium, and zinc.  A healthy intake of these vitamins and minerals helps your coping glands do their job effectively.  The best food for this is the dark, green leafy vegetables like spinach, kale, Swiss chard, rapini, and spring mix salad greens.

Have fun!

Remember the importance of playing and having fun. All work and no play not only make you a dull person, but it also increases your cortisol and burns out your adrenals/HPA axis.  Spending an enjoyable time with friends and family is an essential way to relieve daily stress.  It helps you sleep better too.  Studies show that spending time each day talking to friends helps you sleep better at night.  It assures your brain that you are not alone and therefore there is no need to be hypervigilant while you are trying to sleep.

Stop worrying

A good friend of mine once said: “Worry is paying interest before it’s due if it’s ever due.” Meaning that you may be worrying about something that will never happen.  In that case, all that mental stress was for nothing.  If you must worry, one way to reign in worrying is to allow a certain “worry time” each day.  For example, 5 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. is your worry time.  At any other time throughout the day, if you catch yourself worrying, you shut down those thoughts and stop worrying about them until your worry time.

Is There Such a Thing as Good Stress?

Having the occasional tight deadline or financial worry can actually be a good thing.  It can motivate you to get the job done, work a bit harder or find a more financially rewarding job.  Everyone experiences a certain amount of stress in life, harnessing it to effect positive change is beneficial.  It’s only when it’s ongoing, when you may feel overwhelmed by it, unable to control it, cope with it, or feel trapped in it, that it can become damaging to your psyche and your overall health.

Authored By Dr. Pamela Frank, BSc(Hons), Naturopathic Doctor, updated March 13, 2022


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