Relax-Stress Directional Sign

This past year has been a doozy.

We’ve been required to pivot in how our children are schooled, how we do our work, how we socialize, and how we do life—all while being expected to maintain the same level of productivity and presence. 

Many of us have had even more responsibility packed into an already overpacked schedule.  The well-meaning encouragement from some sources to “Do more during the pandemic—learn something!  Become something!  Now is the time!”, can easily be translated into even more pressure.

The impact of these multiple stressors has been enormous.

If you follow me on Instagram, you know that in honor of Stress Awareness month I posted about the damaging effects of stress and its partner in crime, cortisol. 

This post explores the answer to the question: “When is too much stress too much?”

You see, even though the impact of stress is unique to each person, there are concrete signs that your body’s ability to adapt, respond and recover from stress has reached exhaustion. 

Let’s talk about what that looks like. 

Your Stress System

You may have heard burnout referred to as adrenal fatigue, as the adrenal glands are responsible for pumping out cortisol and other hormones in response to stress. 

But this is an oversimplification of everything that’s really happening. Stress is actually handled by something called the HPA Axis, which represents complex communication between the:

  • H=Hypothalamus gland
  • P= Pituitary gland
  • A= Adrenal glands

Not only do these glands in the HPA axis work together when we are under stress, but they also talk to our brain and regulate a number of other things including our:

  • Hormones
  • Mood and emotions
  • Digestion
  • Immune function
  • Blood sugar
  • Cardiovascular system
  • Central nervous system

Each person’s capacity for stress is different and the body’s daily process of adapting to and repairing from its stress load is called allostasis.  

The cumulative wear and tear on your body from chronic stress is known as your allostatic load.

When that load of chronic stress becomes too much for your body to bear, you reach what is known as allostatic overload. This means you pay a price--physically, mentally, and emotionally. 

Allostatic overload causes dysregulation of the HPA axis and leads to chronic illness.  

The 3 Stages of Stress

How your body is doing at responding to your “load” of stress and how close you are to overload, can be defined by the signs and symptoms seen in the 3 stages of stress response.

These three stages of stress response are known as the General Adaptation Syndrome, and were first defined by Hans Selye MD, the “The Father of Stress” back in 1950.

Stage 1: Alarm

This is the early stage of stress, otherwise known as acute stress. This stress tends to be short-term, like during final exams week, moving, changing jobs, a work project, the holidays, dealing with a short-lived issue, etc. 

In this stage, your body is on high alert, in what we call the “fight or flight” response. Here you have high levels of stress and you may feel keyed up, anxious, or agitated. Energy-wise you may be a little tired but also wired, and your mind races when you try to sleep. 

You may feel like you have a burst of energy (adrenaline) to tackle the stress in front of you. Fatigue is not generally a concern.

In the alarm stage, your pulse is higher and your cortisol, blood pressure and blood sugar are also elevated.

Stage 2: Resistance

The resistance stage is when your body is hard at work trying to bring all those physiological responses from the short-term stress (blood sugar, heart rate, blood pressure) back to normal and maintain homeostasis. In other words, your body is trying to mitigate or repair any potential damage done by the stress.  

This can be harder for the body to do if the stress is prolonged or new stressors are added—because it still needs to be in fight or flight mode.  

In this stage, your serotonin levels are declining and you may find you are more moody or irritable, having some difficulty concentrating and feeling your energy levels dropping. 

If stress is persistent, you may have a hard time relaxing or shutting off that feeling of stress. Cortisol levels may be normal or fluctuating in this stage, however, inflammatory markers are elevated and your immune system begins to be affected. 

You may be catching every cold that’s going around, recovery from exercise is taking longer and you are feeling tired all the time.  

Stage 3: Exhaustion—aka BURNOUT.

This is a stage of depletion. In this phase, your HPA axis has become dysregulated and has lost its ability to adequately respond to stress. You’re not just fatigued, you’re exhausted, and you may be very tired in the late afternoon or evening. 

Patients will tell me they are so tired they could go to bed as soon as they come home from work, or that they often nap or fall asleep on the couch in the early evening.

In this phase, sleep issues are more frequent, with difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. You may wake up at 4 am with your heart racing and you can’t get back to sleep, or even when you do sleep 9 or 10 hours you don’t feel rested when you wake in the morning. 

Patients in this stage also complain of more aches and pains, new illnesses, as well a feeling of indifference to the things that normally bring them joy.

Anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsiveness, or panic attacks may be more pronounced.

There’s also an inability to handle small stressors—your emotional and physical response to little things is inflated. Everything stresses you out and everything is a chore.  

In this phase, exercise exhausts you and you may be seeing weight gain around your midsection. You feel run down and depleted.

And your libido? 

...what libido?

This late stage of stress is also reflected in low serotonin levels, low levels of stress hormones and sometimes low blood pressure. Magnesium, B vitamins, zinc, and vitamin C--those nutrients that are required for vitality and a healthy stress response are also depleted.

The effects of stress are cumulative and can persist for years, affecting many, if not all of the body systems I talked about earlier.

If any of these stages of stress sound like you, there are things you can do to help your body recover and heal, as well as build up resilience to stress.

Check back here and on my Instagram page.  I’ll be talking about lifestyle changes, nutrition, supplements and herbs that I recommend so you can get your energy, vibrancy, calm, and most importantly YOU back.