Stress Awareness Month: Empowering Yourself to Live a Balanced, Stress-Free Life

Stress Awareness Month: Empowering Yourself to Live a Balanced, Stress-Free Life
By Jonny Bowden, PhD, CNS
Scientific Advisor to Barlean’s


The first thing you need to know about stress is that it comes in two flavors, the most important of which are Chronic and Acute. Remember that distinction because while acute stress hurts, chronic stress kills.

Acute stress is sudden and immediate, and you feel it. It's also short-term. Banging your shin on a metal table is an example of acute stress. Finding out that an old school friend died is acute stress. It happens, it's a shock, it changes your entire physiology for a time, but its effects are relatively time-limited.

(Episodic acute stress, a form of acute stress, frequently occurs in those who consistently face urgent tasks or who live a life of constant chaos.)

Chronic stress, on the other hand, is a whole different animal. It's an underlying baseline of constant stress that causes its physiological changes more silently—it's almost like something you get used to, the way apartment dwellers in New York City get used to a baseline level of noise. It persists over an extended period of time, often due to life circumstances or unresolvable issues such as financial hardship, dysfunctional families, or chronic illness.

While stress is a natural and sometimes beneficial aspect of human experience—there's even such a thing as "good stress" (eustress) that can help you feel energized and excited, but its chronic form is linked to numerous health issues. Understanding the nuances of stress is the first step toward managing its effects on our lives.

Physiological Effects of Stress

At the heart of the stress response are two key players: the hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Cortisol, often called the "stress hormone," plays a crucial role in regulating various bodily functions, including blood sugar levels, metabolism, inflammation, and memory formation. Its release during stress provides the body with the necessary energy to face perceived threats. Adrenaline, on the other hand, increases heart rate, elevates blood pressure, and boosts energy supplies, preparing the body for immediate action. Its effects are short-lived, while the effects of constantly elevated cortisol are anything but. While these responses are essential for acute stress situations, their prolonged activation through chronic stress can lead to significant health issues. For the body, it's like keeping the gas pedal on when you're in first gear. Elevated cortisol levels over time can suppress the immune system, increase weight gain, and raise the risk of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Similarly, continuous high levels of adrenaline can contribute to anxiety, depression, and heart disease.

Psychological Effects of Stress

The impact of stress extends far beyond physical health, profoundly influencing our mood, behavior, and overall mental well-being. Acute stress can lead to temporary feelings of anxiety and worry, but it's the relentless, unyielding nature of chronic stress that poses the greatest risk to mental health. It can trigger depression, anxiety disorders, and a general decrease in life satisfaction. Stress also affects libido, with chronic stress often leading to a decrease in sexual desire and satisfaction, further straining personal relationships. Moreover, stress impacts cognitive functions, including attention, memory, and decision-making processes. The constant presence of stress hormones can overburden the brain, leading to difficulties in concentration and increased susceptibility to mental fatigue.

Good Stress vs. Chronic Stress

Not all stress is detrimental. Eustress, or "good stress," is a positive form of stress that can enhance motivation, improve performance, and lead to personal growth. Examples include the stress experienced before a competition or presentation, which can drive individuals to prepare more thoroughly and perform more effectively. Eustress is typically short-lived and is perceived as within our coping abilities, thereby improving resilience, focus, and even immune function. In contrast, chronic stress arises when individuals face continuous challenges without relief or relaxation between stressors, leading them to feel overwhelmed and unable to cope. This type of stress is directly linked to numerous chronic diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, depression, and anxiety disorders. The distinction between eustress and distress (negative stress) is crucial in understanding stress's complex role in our lives and highlights the importance of managing stress to harness its benefits while mitigating its risks.

The Role of Supplements in Managing Stress

In the quest to combat stress, dietary supplements, especially omega-3 fatty acids, have emerged as a promising ally. Omega-3s found abundantly in fish oil, flaxseeds, and walnuts, are essential fats that the body cannot produce on its own. Scientific research suggests that omega-3s can play a significant role in calming and relaxing the system. For instance, a study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition found that medical students who received omega-3 supplements experienced a 20% reduction in symptoms compared to the placebo group. Omega-3 fatty acids are believed to modulate the effects of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, by supporting overall brain health and contributing to the regulation of neurotransmitter functions, including those involved in mood regulation. Furthermore, omega-3s have anti-inflammatory properties that may help manage stress. While omega-3 supplements are not a panacea for stress, they can be an effective part of a holistic approach to stress management, especially when combined with a healthy diet and lifestyle choices. It is always recommended to consult with a healthcare provider before starting any new supplement regimen.

Stress Reduction Techniques

In addition to nutritional support, incorporating practical stress reduction techniques into daily routines can significantly alleviate the impact of stress. Here are some user-friendly methods:

  • Meditation and Mindfulness: Regular practice of meditation and mindfulness can enhance emotional resilience and reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety. Even a few minutes a day can improve one's ability to remain calm and focused on the face of stressors. If you simply cannot meditate at this time, try a few minutes of simple breathing exercises (see below).
  • Breathing Exercises: Simple deep breathing exercises, like the 4-7-8 technique, can help activate the body's relaxation response, reducing stress and promoting a sense of calm. The 4-7-8 breathing technique involves inhaling for four seconds, holding your breath for seven seconds, and then exhaling for eight seconds. This technique is intended to help reduce anxiety and improve sleep. It is based on the Pranayama breathing exercise that is practiced during yoga for relaxation.
  • Physical Activity: Engaging in regular physical activity, whether it's a brisk walk, yoga, or more vigorous exercise, can release endorphins, the body's natural stress relievers, and improve mood.
  • Quality Sleep: Prioritizing good sleep hygiene can help manage stress levels, as sleep deprivation can exacerbate stress and its effects on the body.
  • Social Support: Maintaining a supportive network of friends and family can provide emotional support and aid in stress management. By integrating these techniques and considering nutritional supplements like omega-3s, individuals can develop a comprehensive strategy for managing stress and enhancing their overall well-being.
Summing it all Up:
  • Stress, while an inevitable part of life, doesn't have to dominate it. By understanding the nuanced effects of stress on our bodies and minds, recognizing the distinction between good and chronic stress, and utilizing tools such as omega-3 supplements and practical stress reduction techniques, we can take meaningful steps toward mitigating its impact. As we observe Stress Awareness Month, let’s commit to taking proactive measures to manage stress, fostering resilience, and promoting a healthier, more balanced life.