The Science of Stress

Ever since I suffered from depression in my late twenties and early thirties, I’ve been living with an anxious mind. I struggle with it on so many levels. Not least because, before I was depressed, I didn’t really know what anxiety or stress felt like. I’m for real now. People don’t believe me when I say that, but it’s true! I never got nervous about tests or exams at school, I never worried about catching public transport or wandering around in the dark by my small, skinny self when a was a teenager. I worked hard (at all sorts of random hours around my school and social life), saved up and went travelling around the world when I was an idealistic, clueless 18-year-old. And I never had so much as a twinge of nerves. I tried everything and worried about nothing. I went through my first pregnancy while my boyfriend was doing his National Service in another country. I walked to the hospital to give birth. I didn’t worry about all the new-mum stuff because worrying wasn’t me.

But depression will fuck with your mind on so many levels. Even if you’re lucky enough to call yourself ‘recovered’, like me, you’re irrecoverably changed. There are things you have to live with. Anxiety is one of mine. I don’t mean feeling anxious about regular things like job interviews, driving tests, medical exams, etc. I mean feeling like that constantly: being on edge, waiting for the hammer to fall – always.

Survival mode

You’ve probably heard people use the phrase ‘survival mode’ (usually in the context of women, usually mothers). We use it to describe lives that are chaotic and so full that there is no space to relax. That phrase, though, is actually spot-on. When we feel like this, our bodies literally switch onto another setting where survival is the only thing that matters.

You see, our bodies are actually designed to deal with stress. Perhaps you’ve heard of the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) and parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) nervous system. You’ve probably heard the classic example of your fight-or-flight response being activated when a tiger is chasing you. In this (very unlikely!) case, your sympathetic nervous system being activated would definitely be a GOOD thing. It’s an ancient, intricate and incredible system that really did help us survive. It’s controlled by the hypothalmic-pituiraty-adrenal axis, which regulates cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline). When activated, this stress response increases your heart rate, dilates some blood vessels to get more oxygen to your muscles, and constricts others to shut down functions deemed unnecessary in a crisis, like digestion. It increases the availability of glucose to your muscles and brain, and a bunch of other very useful stuff. Enabling you to (hopefully) outrun that proverbial tiger, or at least give yourself a fighting chance.

But, after the ‘tiger’ stops chasing you (or, in today’s world, the job interview or driving test is over, or you get the results of your medical exam), your sympathetic nervous system deactivates. Heart rate and available glucose return to normal levels, blood flow goes back to business as usual. You chill out. The problem with anxiety is that everything is a tiger. And when there are no tigers, your brain can obligingly invent some.

Cortisol: friend or foe?

I mentioned cortisol earlier as one of the main players in the fight-or-flight response. Cortisol has become a dirty word, but it’s actually essential. As we can see from the way our bodies react in fight-or-flight, cortisol plays a big role in regulating blood pressure, blood sugar, and also inflammation (which really is a dirty word!)

Like most hormones, it’s balancing it that’s the trick. And if you have anxiety, your cortisol is waaaaaaaay out of balance. This means it has a detrimental effect on the systems it regulates when it’s in balance, leading to fluctuating blood sugar, poor digestion, impaired immune system function, increased inflammation, poor memory and disrupted sleep.

Let’s be honest, most of us have at least one of these problems, right? And if the root is in stress, we need to deal with it. I mean, I get it. Nobody wants a ‘problem’. I sure don’t. I’m basically healthy, and I don’t want to go looking for trouble. But the thing is, if you leave something like this to its own devices, it just grows. And you don’t want something that controls your blood pressure, blood sugar and inflammation growing. Because those things lead to the top three Western diseases, right?

Stressors in nature

Anything that puts your body under stress is known as a ‘stressor’. You know I like to turn to nature (always), and to illustrate what can happen when we do and don’t deal with stressors, I’m going to take you into my garden.

Elderberry flower buds

Meet Sambucus nigra, my wonderful elderberry. I bought him when he was six inches high, and he grew so fast, to about nine feet! The next spring, he had sprays of flowers, and I looked forward to elderberries in autumn. But then there was a heatwave – two heatwaves, in fact – and elderberry did not like it.

Welcome raindrops after a scorching summer

He got brown and faded, but he didn’t die. He turned all his energy away from producing fruit and diverted it into staying alive. And he’s OK now. I had to cut back some of the leaves that had gone dry around the edges, but he’s a healthy plant again.

Lush elderberry leaves

Now meet Borago officinalis – borage, or star flower. Isn’t she gorgeous?

Beautiful borage

Borage used to live on my balcony, but last year there was a huge snowstorm. I covered my plants, but I didn’t tie down the cover well enough and the wind whipped a corner away, leaving borage’s leaves exposed. They got snow burnt (and I felt awful), but borage didn’t die right away. She put out so many beautiful star flowers the next week, all at once, because she knew the end was inevitable now, and she needed to get those seeds out into the world. And then she keeled over and died.

So many starflowers

The lesson here is clear to me: draw boundaries, turn in and protect yourself – or you’re going to burn out. Nature knows when to cut back in order to preserve, like the elderberry, and when the game is up and it’s time to go, like the borage. Unfortunately, most human beings are not that wise. We think we can handle anything – until we can’t.

In my next post, I’ll share a little of what I’ve learnt about protecting myself, and healing myself too. But before I go, I have to say that, if you think you are suffering from stress or anxiety, do your OWN research (I am NOT a doctor and this is the infamous Internet). Get your tests done, speak with professionals, and remember that our health is often much more in our hands than we realise.

Also remember that you deserve to feel WELL. Not just scraping through, not just surviving – WELL. And if your doctor won’t listen to you, find one that will. Your health – physical and mental – is EVERYTHING.

2 thoughts on “The Science of Stress”

  1. That’s great that you’re sharing your story here. Who knows how many people feel like you did, and would benefit from not feeling so alone? Always admire people who aren’t afraid of sharing their stories. Keep on keeping on!


    1. Thanks for the encouragement, Stuart! It actually really helps for me to share in writing. I’ve been a closed book for most of my life, and opening up is actually really beneficial (for me!)


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