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Understanding the 3 Stages of Stress Can Lead to a Happy, Healthy Life

Need to Know:

  • There are 3 stages of stress that get progressively worse, moving from alarm to resistance to exhaustion.

  • Once you’re on the stress roller coaster, you’re not fated to end in burnout. If you learn to identify the signs of each stage, you can take action specific to that step to intervene and get back into balance.

Your mind is incredible. It sculpts the person you are and how you experience the world. It's the doorway to your thoughts, feelings, and actions.

It's no wonder then that a healthy mind is key to your overall well-being. Unfortunately, modern life can be tough on mental health, and stress is one of the biggest health concerns in our era of overwhelm.

Whether you’re dealing with work deadlines, relationship problems, financial worries, or world events, we’re continuously bombarded with stressors, and the effect of this stress shows up in our bodies – racing minds, tense muscles, and churning stomachs.

If that sounds all too familiar, you're by no means alone. It's a stark reality that 4 in 5 people feel stressed, and it's no surprise that this runs so deeply in society. We're constantly being pushed to do more and be more, and if you can't keep up, it can feel like failure. It's a vicious cycle that can take a toll on your mental and physical health.

Although stress is an unavoidable part of life's rich tapestry, you can learn how to manage it – how to tell your body that the endless deadlines you are facing aren’t actually a tiger threatening your survival. Understanding how stress progresses and manifests at each of the three stages can help you nip it in the bud before you risk complete burnout.

Stage 1: Alarm

The alarm stage is the first line of defence against stressors. Also known as the fight-or-flight response, it's an evolutionary protective mechanism that provides a burst of energy to help you either confront or escape the supposed danger you’re facing.

When your brain perceives a threat, the sympathetic nervous system jumps into action, the adrenal glands release adrenaline, and the pituitary releases cortisol. The resulting flood of stress hormones into the bloodstream increases heart rate and blood pressure and diverts blood from the digestive system to the muscles. Your body is poised to act.

The problem is that the alarm stage was never meant to be sustained for long periods. It's an emergency reaction that should only last for a few minutes. But, in today's fast-paced world, stressors are often constant, and your body can stay in a state of high alert for hours, days, or even weeks. The impact can be serious. So, taking steps to bring your body back into balance as soon as possible is critical.

If you find yourself with the characteristic pounding heart, tense muscles, rapid breathing, and uncomfortable sweating before a big speech or after a near-miss car accident, try some of these stress-busting techniques to help move your body out of its state of alarm:

  • Deep breathing: Filling the lungs deeply and evenly helps slow the heart rate and increases oxygen levels. For the simplest version, inhale slowly through your nose, then match that inhale with a slow exhale. If you want to try something a little more intense, do a set of box breathing: exhale for four counts, hold for four counts, inhale for four counts, hold for four counts, then repeat.

  • Progressive muscle relaxation: Tensing and then relaxing different muscle groups can release tension and signals to your brain that the need for flight-or-fight mode has ended. Start with one area of the body and then slowly move to the others.

  • Visualization: Picturing yourself in a calm and relaxing place isn’t just a good escape, it can help to ease anxiety and stress.

  • Take a supplement to calm your cortisol: When you’re in fight-or-flight mode, your hormones get out of balance as resources are diverted into producing cortisol. A supplement like Veracity’s Vital CRTSL Calming can help counteract these spikes and their side effects, like stress acne.

Stage 2: Resistance

After the initial shock, your body attempts to regain normality during the resistance or adaptation phase. The parasympathetic nervous system gradually reduces your heart rate and you begin to feel calmer.

Although the overwhelming panic of the alarm stage has likely subsided, if the stress persists, so do the negative consequences, even if they're less obvious. You may think you're coping, but your body is still hyper-vigilant. It adapts to the increased stress by continuing to secrete cortisol, so you may feel on edge, irritable, frustrated, and unable to concentrate.

If the resistance stage is more than a passing phase, the physical effects of stress become more pronounced. Without time to rest and recover, you'll enter the final stage of exhaustion.

Take action during the resistance stage by identifying and reducing chronic stress. Some ideas of things you can do are:

  • Adopt healthy eating habits: Foods such as those high in omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, and vitamin B can help your body handle and calm the biological side effects of stress.

  • Get regular exercise: Physical activity might seem stressful in the moment, but it actually helps your body reduce tension, get back into alignment and balance mentally and physically, promotes the release of endorphins, and improves your sleep quality.

  • Practice relaxation techniques: Whatever works to help you stay calm and focused, whether you moonlight as a yogi, find your zen during meditation, are a devoted Tai Chi practitioner, or love long meditative rambles while listening to music can help you avoid progressing into the third stage of stress.

Stage 3: Exhaustion

The final stress stage of stress as too many of us have experienced is exhaustion. This stage happens when your body and mind are in a state of high alert for an extended period and can no longer maintain healthy function.

Chronic stress leaves you feeling utterly drained and run down with no energy at all. The stress hormones weaken your immune system and make you more susceptible to colds and infections.

Stress also prompts rising levels of inflammation, increasing the chances of serious health problems like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Burnout, depression, and anxiety are common at this point.

There’s no shame if you realize you’ve reached the exhaustion stage – it’s happened to all of us. But it's even more important at this point to take measures to protect your physical and mental health.

To pull yourself out of exhaustion and burnout, it’s officially self-care time. A few measures to try are:

  • Identify your stressors:  Once you can pinpoint exactly what's causing stress, you can take steps as soon as possible to resolve, eliminate, or avoid these culprits at their root.

  • Get plenty of sleep: Restorative sleep allows your body to rest and heal, so aim for at least 8 hours per night. As the name suggests, the exhaustion phase is not the time to start cutting corners with your shut eye.

  • Give your body some supplemental support: When your body has been dealing with a prolonged period of stress, it turns into what’s known as chronic stress in which your cortisol levels rather than being elevated actually plummet. A supplement like Veracity’s Vital ADRNE Restore can help support your overtaxed adrenal system to bring your hormones and energy levels back into balance.

  • Talk to someone: A therapist or counselor, or even a supportive friend or family member, can help you to manage stress. While figuring out new techniques that can help you is important, you may be surprised by how you feel after just talking to someone about what’s on your mind. Putting words to your anxiety and overwhelm can go a long way to helping to alleviate it. 

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