“Stress” is a term that we probably do not need to provide a basic definition for. It is something that we have all experienced first hand – the feeling you get when deadlines are piling up, when you are running late for a meeting, or when a loved one is unwell. The mind feels busy, you can’t sit still, the shoulders feel tense and the furrowed brow won’t seem to ease up… Yup, we can all relate.
Beyond these all too familiar notions though, do we really know what stress is? Perhaps more importantly, do we know what stress is doing to our mind and bodies?
Managing stress does, at times, need to be a conscious effort. So if you knew what was happening inside the body, would it change the way that you manage your stress? Would you want to monitor it better? Today we are taking a deep dive into the physiology of stress and how we can use our favorite biometric tool, heart rate variability (HRV), to help manage it.
What’s the Big Deal With Stress?
We will start by highlighting that not all stress is bad. Stress is a normal part of our day to day life and in acute (short-term) doses, it is actually really beneficial. For things such as brain function, resilience, confidence and even fitness (exercise is after all an acute stressor!), we need stress in order to take action and make changes. As we experience various stressors, our body and psychology adapt to become more prepared for those stressors in the future. This is a good thing!
Where issues arise, and where we encourage people to take action, is when stress becomes chronic (long-term). Being chronically stressed causes chaos in our bodies – so much so that it can become a serious risk factor for a number of diseases. It is not uncommon that as EP’s, clients are referred to as those who have serious health conditions caused primarily by stress – that’s pretty crazy if you think about it!
Behind the Scenes With Stress
When we experience stress, our body rings the alarm and a branch of the nervous system called our sympathetic nervous system (commonly known as the ‘fight or flight’ system) kicks into gear. This system causes a number of changes in the body, aimed at defusing whatever the stress is. This can include things like the release of adrenalin and other hormones, increased heart rate, blood supply and breathing rate, and even elevated immune activity.
Of course this response is helpful when it comes to those acute stressors we talked about above. That surge of urgency helps us reach all those Friday deadlines! But when stress becomes chronic, our body gets stuck in that ‘fight or flight’ space – which, trust us – is not a place you want to be stranded.
Over time, our body gets tired of producing the hormones associated with acute stress and switches to producing a chronic stress hormone called cortisol. Elevated levels of cortisol lead to an array of health issues over time, including low mood, impaired digestion, cardiovascular risk factors (like high blood pressure), fatigue, weight gain and many more, the list goes on! If you’ve heard of the term “burnout” – this is typically what is going on when people reach that stage.
HRV to the Rescue!
At this stage you might be thinking – “I know I need to reduce my stress, but HOW!?”. Don’t worry, we would never leave you hanging. There are a number of great ways to manage and reduce stress, many of which you’ve probably heard of, including mindfulness/meditation, regular exercise, setting work/life boundaries and reducing your screen time. But we have a secret weapon when it comes to effectively implementing those strategies – heart rate variability!
HRV literally measures how well your body is coping with stress. By measuring HRV, we can identify when someone is stuck in that sympathetic (‘fight and flight’) state, and effectively guide them back to a place of balance.
First and foremost we can use HRV data to identify individual causes of stress and better manage these – for example, by easing back our workload prior to approaching burnout. Secondly, we (and our clients!) can watch the response of the nervous system as we implement additional strategies, like meditation or exercise. Sometimes, the vague nature of ‘reducing stress’ as a goal can make it difficult to stay motivated, in which case having numbers that tell you it’s working can be great.
Final Words of Wisdom
Stress is an unavoidable part of life, and in small doses, actually useful! When chronic however, stress becomes the villain our doctors warn us about. If you have ever asked yourself “where do I start?” then HRV might just be the answer for you!
Author: Tessa Nielsen Editor: Yolanda van Vugt Clinical Exercise Physiologist and Content Creator at Specialised
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