The stress response is characterised by a complex hormonal cascade. Stress is a natural response that occurs in response to perceived physical or psychological trauma (or the anticipation of such), certain chemical messengers, and also during the normal sleep-wake cycle. However, amidst the ever-increasing demands of modern life, careful and continual nervous system regulation is necessary to keep stress levels in check. Here, we outline the difference between functional and dysfunctional stress, explain why it’s so important to prevent chronic stress, and suggest some stress management strategies to try.
Eustress vs. distress: Moderation is key
Stress can be both beneficial and detrimental to our wellbeing and performance. ‘Positive’ or ‘functional’ stress – known as eustress – is associated with increased energy, motivation and productivity. This kind of stress is incredibly helpful for meeting a challenge like a deadline, for example, and promotes both personal and professional growth. By contrast, ‘negative’ or ‘dysfunctional’ stress – or distress – occurs in response to a perceived threat over which an individual has little to no control. It can occur in response to excessive and/or prolonged bouts of stress that place high demands on an individual, or alternatively, to boredom (characterised by low demands). When it comes to stress, like many things in life, moderation is key!
Acute stress vs. chronic stress: Timing matters
Stress may also be classified according to duration. Short-term stress – acute stress – activates the fight / flight / freeze response. For a short time, this increases heart rate, blood pressure and alertness, and down-regulates digestion, kidney function and sleep. Meanwhile, chronic stress is characterised by continued nervous system activation and elevated cortisol (stress hormone) levels. This increases both inflammation and the risk of negative health effect such as reduced immune function, a compromised gut health and weight gain. As a result, chronic stress is a recognised risk factor for multiple health conditions, including:
- Mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression
- Neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease
- Gastrointestinal conditions, including Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Inflammatory Bowel Disease
- Heart disease
- Type II diabetes
- Autoimmune conditions
- Menstrual irregularity and fertility issues
Suggested stress management strategies
Below, find our favourite strategies – to be used in combination, ideally – for support when the inevitable strikes. They’re particularly beneficial as part of your regular routine to proactively promote a healthy stress response and calm the nervous system. If you’re needing additional support, don’t hesitate to reach out to your GP or preferred health care practitioner for help.
- Breathe. Mindful breathing is an accessible, efficient tool for reducing stress. With an increased inflow of oxygen and all focus on the present moment, heart rate and blood pressure decrease and nervous tension reduces. Next time you’re feeling stressed, take a pause and take 5 deep breaths in and out to slow your nervous system.
- Escape. From simply getting outside to breathe some fresh air and feel the sun on your skin, to a much-needed holiday break, leaving work behind – for even a few minutes – helps to reset and recharge. Time in nature is a particularly powerful antidote to stress; for example, this study demonstrated that spending just 20 minutes in nature can significantly reduce stress levels.
- Move. Physical activity is an evidence-based means for improving both physical and mental health. Mindful movement – in whichever form you most prefer, such as walking, high intensity interval training, pilates, yoga, swimming, rock climbing, the list goes on – offers a mental reprieve from the demands of the day, and also promotes the release of ‘feel-good’ endorphins.
- Nourish. A healthy, balanced diet – full of delicious whole foods that make you feel amazing – is fundamental to both physical and mental health. Specific nutrients that support a healthy stress response include omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, vitamin C and magnesium.
- Play. Take some time to indulge in hobbies you love – ideally something that isn’t related to work, or even necessarily productive. If you’re not sure what this could be for you, think back to what you enjoyed doing as a child for some ideas. Try a few different things and see what brings the most joy!
- Rest. Your body is intelligent, and will tell you what it needs. It’s important to rest when you need to, in whichever way you need. This could look like a yin yoga class, a massage, or even a day on the couch with Netflix, alongside quality, restorative sleep each night.
- Soak. Taking some time to soak in a warm bath is a lovely self-care practise. Try adding mineral salts, such as magnesium, and calming essential oils to relax both body and mind.
- Socialise. Spend plenty of time with the people you love. Now, more than ever before, we recognise the power of social connection in managing stress, promoting longevity, and fostering a greater overall sense of health and wellbeing.
For expert, personalised dietary advice, book your first appointment with one of our wonderful accredited practising dietitians today – they’d be thrilled to be part of your holistic health care team.
Written by Caitlin Branch, Student Nutritionist, and Amanda Smith, Accredited Practising Dietitian.
Bernstein, C. N. (2017). The brain-gut axis and stress in inflammatory bowel disease. Gastroenterology Clinics, 46(4), 839-846. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gtc.2017.08.006
Bisht, K., Sharma, K., & Tremblay, M. È. (2018). Chronic stress as a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease: Roles of microglia-mediated synaptic remodeling, inflammation, and oxidative stress. Neurobiology of Stress, 9, 9-21. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ynstr.2018.05.003
Churchill, R., Riadi, I., Kervin, L., Teo, K., & Cosco, T. (2021). Deciphering the role of physical activity in stress management during a global pandemic in older adult populations: A systematic review protocol. Systematic Reviews, 10(1), 140. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13643-021-01678-6
Gropper, S. S., Smith, J. L., & Carr, T. P. (2022). Advanced nutrition and human metabolism (8th ed.). Cengage.
Lagraauw, H. M., Kuiper, J., & Bot, I. (2015). Acute and chronic psychological stress as risk factors for cardiovascular disease: Insights gained from epidemiological, clinical and experimental studies. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 50, 18-30. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bbi.2015.08.007
Matos, M., McEwan, K., Kanovský, M., Halamová, J., Steindl, S. R., Ferreira, N., … & Gilbert, P. (2021). The role of social connection on the experience of COVID-19 related post-traumatic growth and stress. PLoS One, 16(12), e0261384. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0261384
Paxton, F. (2015). Foundations of naturopathic nutrition: A comprehensive guide to essential nutrients and nutritional bioactives. Routledge.
Pluut, H., Curșeu, P. L., & Fodor, O. C. (2022). Development and validation of a short measure of emotional, physical, and behavioral markers of eustress and distress (MEDS). Healthcare, 10(2), 339. https://doi.org/10.3390/healthcare10020339
Sharif, K., Watad, A., Coplan, L., Lichtbroun, B., Krosser, A., Lichtbroun, M., … & Shoenfeld, Y. (2018). The role of stress in the mosaic of autoimmunity: an overlooked association. Autoimmunity Reviews, 17(10), 967-983. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.autrev.2018.04.005