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Stress: What it is and what you can do about it

Stress: What it is and what you can do about it

Clinical reflexologist Nicola Stewart discusses stress, how it affects us and what we can do to manage it.

If you find it hard to concentrate, struggle to make simple decisions, worry more than usual, feel ‘down’ or over-anxious, feel tired but can’t sleep – you may be suffering from stress.

What is stress? 

Stress is what happens to the body when the level of pressure it is feeling goes beyond its natural ability to cope with it. There are a number of ways that we can feel stress.  Take a look the list below to see if you can identify with any of the changes: 

  • Physical changes:  A lack of energy, aches and pains, change in bowel habits.
  • Behavioural changes: Emotional eating, eating more or less, craving more junk food, increase in alcohol consumption.
  • Emotional changes: easily irritated, feeling low, feeling tired.
  • Cognitive changes:  feeling negative or having negative thoughts, difficulty concentrating, avoidance.

What happens to our body when we are stressed?

Learning what happens to our bodies when we are stressed is important to understanding why we feel how we do.  When looking at stress the most important link to be considered is the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis.  It is this junction where the brain chemistry, or neurotransmitters, interact directly with the endocrine tissue to produce heightened reactions throughout the body. It’s the point where the brain activity meets hormones and can result in dramatic effects. 

The two main hormones involved in this process are the corticotropic releasing factor (CRF) and adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH). These in turn cause the production of adrenalin, noradrenalin and cortisol. 

The role of the hypothalamus is to communicate between the autonomic nervous system, behavioural functions and the endocrine system.  The hypothalamus delivers the hypothalamic hormones into the anterior pituitary gland.  The hypothalamus is the first to respond by stimulating the pituitary to release ACTH into the blood stream, which activates the adrenals to release cortisol.  Simultaneously, the brain stem is also activating the autonomic nervous system. 

During acute stress this level of release increases causing the adrenal glands to produce two hormones: adrenalin (from the medulla of the adrenal gland) and cortisol (from the cortex). Adrenalin provides short-term essential requirements, like increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure and boosts the release of energy into the system. These are all critical when there is a perceived threat.  

Cortisol however has an effect on long-term non-essential requirements – it decreases and suppresses non-essential body functions during a fight or flight reaction. This is fine for the body over the short term, but in the long term this suppression is highly negative to health.

Elevated cortisol levels from prolonged or chronic stress can cause side effects such as suppression of thyroid function, cognitive impairment, increased blood pressure, decreased bone density, blood sugar imbalances, reduction of immunity and inflammatory responses.

How can reflexology help? 

Regular reflexology sessions can reduce the effects of stress on the body and improve your overall health.  Reflexology possesses the capacity to cancel out the effects of stress, help the body to reach a place of deep relaxation and help to balance the body systems. Through the relaxation process, the body is more capable of dealing with the stresses placed on it.

How can you help yourself?

As a reflexologist, I like to empower my clients to take control of their lives and not let their lives control them.  This may include homework, where I can show them reflexes that they can work on with their hands between sessions. I also like to encourage my clients to take time out for themselves to:

  • Spend time in nature
  • Curl up with a good book 
  • Listen to music
  • Take a bath with some scented candles
  • Go for a walk

If you are feeling stressed at work you could:

  • Take regular screen breaks
  • Arrange to meet a friend for lunch or coffee
  • Avoid having lunch at your desk
  • Go for a walk at lunch time

It is important that whatever goals you set yourself to manage your stress, ensure that they are small and achievable.  By setting more achievable goals you will be more inclined to stick to them and be on your way to a stress-free future.

Nicola Stewart is an experienced clinical reflexologist with a keen interest in fertility, nutrition and women’s health. She is passionate about empowering her clients to take control of their health and wellbeing and often makes this an essential part of her sessions. If you would like to know more about reflexology and how it may benefit you, feel free to get in touch with Nicola here.