Is stress really as bad as they say?

It’s the Festive Season. Popularly touted as the season of love and giving, this time of year is more often marked by last-minute shopping, super-stressed planning, overeating (and over-drinking!), and the year’s highest rates of suicides.

It seems as though the “holidays” aren’t living up to their reputation.

We’re not here to deconstruct social norms and rearrange society, however. What we want to look at is stress: how much is too much, and is it as bad for you as some people say?

>More than “just” an emotion

Stress is often included in the list of emotions we might face on a given day. It finds its place among many others, such as love, joy, happiness, sadness, anger, frustration - usually wedged firmly between anger and frustration, in fact.

What causes stress?

At its core, stress results when things don’t go our way, and we can’t control the outcome. This can occur for a number of reasons, from having too much work, to an uncooperative family during your holiday planning bootcamp (we all do that, right? No? Just me? Okay …)

As they explain at, there are in fact only seven things you can control:

  • Your breath (we’re not talking about grabbing the mints here. This is about breathing properly. It matters!)
  • Your self-talk (be kind to you!)
  • Your gratitude (you have more than you realise - everywhere!)
  • Your body language (don’t believe us? Watch this brilliant TED talk by Amy Cuddy for more insight into the effect of body language on motivation)
  • Your mental and physical fitness
  • Your diet
  • Your sleep

Actually, stress has an important job. Our ancient ancestors were motivated to get away from danger by the fight-or-flight response elicited by stress. That burst of adrenalin would have given them the head start they needed to get away from the savage sabre-tooth tiger, or to track and shoot that gazelle for breakfast.

Stress and the modern man

Nowadays, however, tigers are thin on the ground, and we buy our own breakfast gazelle in neatly packaged portions from our local grocer. However, the biological instinct is as strong as ever. An irate client, and ranting boss, an overdue project, a family crisis - any and all of these situations and so many more that we face every day will elicit the same fight-or-flight response in our modern bodies.

In fact, Time magazine recently reported that our modern generation is the most stressed out generation of human beings ever to have lived. When you bear in mind that their list included ancient Christians being hunted by raving lunatic emperors, or half of Asia being obliterated by marauding huns, it gives one a certain sense of perspective.

How does stress work?

When we experience stress, our adrenal glands release cortisol, adrenalin (epinephrine), and norepinephrine. These hormones trigger the famous fight-or-flight response in the following ways:

Adrenalin causes your heart to beat faster. This also raises your blood pressure.

Cortisol can also cause your blood vessels inner lining to function abnormally - an early step in the process of cholesterol plaque build up.

When your brain sense stress, it activates your autonomic nervous system. This sends a stress response to your gut, which can disturb your natural gut function. Side effects of this include both irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and other digestive problems. This can change the composition of your gut flora over time and reduce your body’s ability to process food efficiently.

Furthermore, cortisol released as a result of long-term, chronic stress affects food cravings by signalling the brain to stock up on energy-dense carbohydrates, which are then stored as visceral (or, deep belly) fat. Perfect. Just what you needed: a spare tyre in the midst of a crisis. As if you weren’t stressed out enough!

This fat is more than just a cosmetic challenge. It behaves like a living organ, releasing hormones and immune system chemicals called cytokines that can increase your risk of developing heart disease and diabetes. In fact, they can make you more susceptible to chronic infections, and lengthen the time it takes to heal.

Other symptoms of chronic stress include:

  • Acne
  • Hairloss
  • Chronic headaches
  • Muscle tension
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability

Many of the hormones made by our bodies share common building material. When we are stressed, a lot of this material is used up creating the hormones cortisol, adrenalin, and norepinephrine. Eventually, this material can become depleted, leaving nothing for the other glands to use when making other hormones necessary for basic functions. This can lead to hormonal imbalances with a wide range of often unpredictable side-effects - none of them pleasant. Not only that, when the body runs out of source material, it runs out. Full stop. The adrenal glands run out of fuel and eventually become fatigued. Extreme adrenal fatigue can develop into Addison’s Disease - a potentially terminal autoimmune condition.

In short: left unchecked, stress can kill you.

What is interesting to note is that the body responds to stress according to the mind’s perception of it. So if you view stressful situations as overwhelming, the body agrees and becomes overwhelmed. But if you can view stressors as challenges you are fully competent to overcome, these situations can be life-affirming areas of growth and productivity.

Next week we’ll look at this facet of stress in more detail, as well as digging into some solutions for managing stress more effectively.

Dr Sanua believes that human health requires the treatment of the whole body. That is why he will take a detailed look at your entire health, and your and your family's health history, when he evaluates the condition you need help for. Call Dr Sanua today on 011 463 1614 or email him at to get to the bottom of your health challenges.


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