Stress Awareness month has been observed every April since 1992.
This year, the theme of Stress Awareness Month is Community. A sense of belonging is important to all of us, and sometimes those who are experiencing stress-related illness feel as if they’re on the outside, unsupported, and unwanted.
In this article, we look at stress from a biological viewpoint and explore a few ways to deal with the stressful situations we face in the 21st century.
Stress is an organism’s response to a life-threatening situation – for example, injury, shortage of food, or proximity of a predator.
Allostasis is a physiological system that helps a body achieve stability through variation. Its function is to predict the body’s needs according to conditions and to trigger physiological changes that will be most effective for survival. In the absence of stressors, the most efficient state is homeostasis, a state of equilibrium.
When faced with a stressor, the sympathetic nervous system activates a fight-or-flight response that channels maximum resources to the most important functions for survival. Through the release of hormones (adrenalin, cortisol) and neurotransmitters (dopamine, serotonin, noradrenalin), physiological changes occur:
When the danger has passed, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in by releasing the hormone oxytocin and the neurotransmitter acetylcholine to restore a state of homeostasis. Heartrate and breathing slow down, digestion resumes, insulin is released to deal with superfluous blood sugar, and blood vessels dilate to bring down blood pressure.
Humans like to be prepared. We’re constantly anticipating events that frighten us, and we’re often in a state of uncertainty. Uncertainty is a stressor, and allostasis prepares us for fight or flight.
But sometimes the anticipation of danger doesn’t go away, and we’re in a constant state of stress. This is known as allostatic load and can lead to illness.
Our four top tips:
Feel it or fake it, a smile’s a smile!
Some of the earliest research into the mechanism of human facial expressions was carried out by the French neurologist Guillaume-Benjamin Duchenne (1806-1875), whose work was a basis for the modern understanding of neural pathways. Some of Duchenne’s experiments, which included the triggering of muscular contractions using electrical probes, were conducted on the heads of executed criminals.
Duchenne gives his name to the full smile – the Duchenne smile – which uses muscles around the mouth and eyes. The term Duchenne smile is sometimes inaccurately used to describe a genuine, involuntary smile.
In a more recent study, it was shown that there are physiological and psychological benefits from maintaining a positive expression during stress.
The study investigated whether covertly manipulating positive facial expressions would influence cardiovascular and affective responses to stress. Participants naïve to the purpose of the study completed two different stressful tasks while holding chopsticks in their mouths in a manner that produced a Duchenne smile, a standard smile (using only the muscles around the mouth), or a neutral expression. Findings revealed that all smiling participants had lower heart rates during stress recovery than the neutral group did, with a slight advantage for those with Duchenne smiles.
Smiling is a muscular action triggered by good feeling. Smiling activates a release of endorphins, which enhance the feelings of pleasure and heighten the inclination to smile. Oddly enough, this cycle doesn’t have to be set in motion by good feeling; it can actually be kicked off by the act of smiling.
Anxiety and depression are socially destructive conditions, potentially triggering a detrimental cycle of voluntary and enforced isolation. The sufferer instinctively withdraws from social interaction, and others find it difficult to engage with someone who is so withdrawn. Exclusion makes the sufferer feel worse and less inclined to seek companionship.
Chiefly associated with social bonding and reproduction, oxytocin is a hormone and neurotransmitter with anti-depressive qualities. It increases perception of social cues and supports positive social behaviour. One of the triggers for oxytocin release is stimulation of the skin.
Self-soothing behaviours, such as stroking a pet, brushing your hair, or exposing your skin to the sun will trigger a release of oxytocin, helping to reduce blood pressure and feelings of anxiety. A positive feedback mechanism means that oxytocin release will stimulate further production and release of the hormone.
Mindfulness is about being in the moment. Mentally remove yourself from the big picture and concentrate on your immediate environment. Become aware of your body and senses.
Stress has a detrimental effect on many functions of the body, including the circulatory system, the immune system, the digestive system, cognition, blood sugar levels, sodium levels, and the respiratory system. Good hydration has a beneficial effect on all organs and systems. Through drinking plenty of water, we can help our bodies regain a healthy balance and reduce the symptoms of stress.
Employers are becoming increasingly committed to the wellbeing of employees. Through gym memberships, social events, vocational training, recognition, and thoughtful office layout, employers all over the world are providing working environments that are conducive to health and engagement. One of the most important elements of a healthy workplace is free access to drinking water.
If you’d like to talk to us about energy-efficient water dispensers that are capable of dispensing 180 cups of hot, chilled, and sparkling water per hour, give us a call on 0800 080 6696 or email email@example.com. We look forward to talking to you.