In the short-term, stress can be beneficial, making you feel focused, alert, and ready to face challenges head-on. But as stress levels rise and return on a daily basis, your health can end up taking a hard hit.
If you frequently feel overwhelmed or on-edge, like many of us in today’s demanding word, it might be time to re-think the way you manage stress.
What is Stress?
Stress is a normal reaction to any kind of demand or danger. When you perceive a threat–whether it’s real or imagined–your body’s defense mechanisms automatically kick into a rapid “fight-or-flight” response or stress reaction.
Your sympathetic nervous system triggers an influx of stress hormones, including epinephrine and cortisol, which provides the body with a burst of energy so that you’re prepared to respond to an emergency. Your heart beats faster, blood pressure rises, muscles tighten, and your senses become sharper. These physiological changes increase your strength, enhance focus, and speed up reaction times.
Meanwhile, epinephrine releases blood sugar and fats from temporary storage sites, providing an immediate source of energy to all parts of the body. If you continue to perceive danger, the stress response system–or HPA axis– will stimulate the adrenal glands to release further cortisol, keeping your body in a revved-up state and on high alert.
Our stress response system evolved over the course of thousands of years to protect us from catastrophic circumstances. Consider the caveman days when our primitive ancestors were exposed to constant danger. Rapidly responding to threats was necessary for survival, whether it was fending off stealth predators or hunting for food on the brink of starvation. And so, our ancestors developed the stress response to endure these harsh conditions.
Fortunately, in today’s modern world, physical threats are far less common, but our nervous system still triggers the fight or flight response. It may kick into gear while you’re out jogging and a dog jumps and barks at you, or when you’re on a plane that’s experiencing rough turbulence.
The problem is, our nervous system struggles to distinguish between physical and emotional threats. For example, deadlines at work, arguments with friends, and mountains of bills can all trigger the stress response, but these situations are not truly dangerous or life-threatening.
If you frequently feel overwhelmed or worn-out, you may be living in a heightened state of chronic low-level stress. This can have detrimental effects on your health. Since the HPA axis remains active, adrenal glands keep producing cortisol and epinephrine, which over time causes wear and tear on your body.
Repeated rushes of epinephrine can damage blood vessels and increase blood pressure, raising your risk of heart attack and stroke. Persistent cortisol triggering fat storage and promotes appetite, which inadvertently leads to weight gain. Plus, since stress hormones re-direct blood flow to the brain, heart, and muscles in preparation for danger, other body systems can suffer, leading to suppressed immune function, hormonal disruptions, and problems with digestion and reproduction.
Fortunately, the parasympathetic nervous system can act as a brake to slow down the stress response. Sometimes called the “rest and digest” response, the parasympathetic nervous system reduces the heart rate, relaxes muscles, and increases blood flow to the intestinal tract.
Signs and Symptoms of Chronic Stress
Stress has a tendency to feel normal amid the hustle and bustle of our daily lives. You may not even realize how much it’s affecting you until it takes a heavier toll. For that reason, it’s more important than ever to consciously monitor your stress levels and be aware of the common signs and symptoms of extreme or chronic stress.
- Irritability or anger
- Loneliness and isolation
- Lack of motivation
- Lapses in memory
- Poor concentration
- Constant worrying
- Poor judgment
- Racing thoughts
- Muscle tension and headaches
- Increased heart rate
- Rapid breathing or shortness of breath
- Blushing and sweating
- Stomach pains and diarrhea
If you are suffering from these symptoms on an ongoing basis with little relief from your current treatment, it may be worth considering some natural alternatives to activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
Stress Management Strategies
Don’t let the recent discoveries about the damaging effects of stress leave you worried. There are many proactive strategies and natural therapies you can use to reduce your stress levels. Some helpful strategies include:
- Engage in regular exercise. Aim to get 30 minutes of physical activity every day. Cardiovascular exercise, such as walking, running, cycling, dancing, or swimming releases “feel good” hormones.
- Maintain a healthy social support network. Keeping in contact with friends and family can provide immense support when dealing with stress. Make an effort to call your friends and catch up in-person on a regular basis.
- Ensure adequate sleep. Feeling tired can make small problems seem much larger. Plan to get at least eight hours of sleep each night.
- Engage your senses. Relieve stress by activating your five senses. Try listening to music, lighting an aromatic candle, drinking herbal tea, or giving your pet a big cuddle.
- Practice relaxation techniques. Making a planned effort to learn relaxation techniques, such as yoga, meditation, or deep breathing, can have a massive impact on your ability to cope with life’s stressors.
Prescription Stress Medicines
In addition to lifestyle changes, chronic stress or stress overload can also be managed with prescription medications. If your stress levels are interfering with your everyday life and leading to anxiety or insomnia, your doctor may prescribe anti-anxiety medications, such as sedatives.
These medications will depress your central nervous system, causing a sense of relaxation, sleepiness, and reduced tension. However, in high doses sedatives can cause slurred speech, impaired coordination, slowed reflexes, and poor judgment. It’s also possible to overdose on these medications, with potentially lethal consequences.
A commonly prescribed group of sedatives is the Benzodiazepines which include diazepam (Valium), alprazolam (Xanax), clonazepam (Klonopin), lorazepam (Ativan), triazolam (Halcion), temazepam (Restoril), and chlordiazepoxide (Librium).
Natural Remedies for Stress
Natural remedies can also play an important role in everyday stress management, especially for those individuals who want to avoid strong prescription medications. Valerian, lavender, chamomile, kava root, and cannabidiol are all known to relax the central nervous system helping to relieve muscle tension and soothe the mind and body. You can find most natural remedies and nutritional supplements in regular pharmacies and health food stores.
These remedies are harvested from plants as opposed to being produced chemically in a laboratory. However, this does not necessarily mean natural remedies are harmless. It’s always advisable to consult with a physician trained in complementary and alternative medicine before using any of these herbal or nutritional substances. Natural remedies can interfere with existing medications and can, under certain circumstances, exacerbate symptoms.
Marijuana and Stress
Marijuana has been used for centuries as a natural way to relieve stress. In fact, over 70% of daily cannabis users in the United States have reported that cannabis helps them relax.  It’s only recently, however, that research has confirmed what marijuana users have claimed all along.
In a first-of-a-kind study, researchers from Washington State University investigated the self-reported stress levels of medicinal cannabis users after smoking different strains and doses of marijuana. Their findings, published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, suggests that cannabis can significantly reduce short-term levels of depression, anxiety, and stress but may exacerbate symptoms over time.
The study marked the first attempt by U.S scientists to observe how smoking marijuana at home with varying concentrations of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) influences emotional wellbeing. Over 12,000 unique smoking sessions were tracked, of which 3,151 were analyzed for depression, 5,085 for anxiety, and 3,717 for stress. Prior to this study, most research assessing the effects of cannabis on stress and anxiety has been limited to orally administered THC within a laboratory.
The WSU researchers found that two puffs of any type of cannabis were sufficient to relieve stress, while 10 puffs of cannabis high CBD (>11%) and high THC (>26.5%) produced the greatest perceived reduction in stress. In comparison, low THC and high CBD strains were most effective at relieving perceived symptoms of depression. However, the study had two clear limitations; the self-selected nature of the participants and their existing bias towards medical marijuana.
THC or CBD: Marijuana for Stress
The previous study indicates that high THC and high CBD strains are most effective for temporary stress relief. However, more clinical trials are needed to determine which specific cannabinoids are responsible for marijuana’s stress-relieving properties.
A team of researchers from the University of Illinois and the University of Chicago set out to examine the stress-relieving effects of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) at different doses. In total, 42 healthy volunteers were included in this clinical trial. They were split into three groups:
- Low-dose group, given a capsule of 7.6 milligrams of THC
- Medium-dose group, given a capsule of 12.5 milligrams
- Placebo group, given a capsule containing no THC
Participants were put through stress-inducing activities including an impromptu interview, public speaking task and a math test. Heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels were measured before, during, and after each laboratory visit.
The results, published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, indicate that THC can reduce stress, but only at low doses. Participants who received the low dose THC reported significantly less stress compared to both placebo and high THC groups. Importantly, the group who received high-THC capsules reported greater levels of distress, although there were no significant differences in heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels between groups.
Cannabidiol (CBD) has also been examined in terms of its effects of stress. Researchers at the University of California specifically examined the effectiveness of CBD in the management of concomitant anxiety and insomnia. Patients were given 25-75 mg of CBD per day for one month. Self-reported anxiety levels significantly decreased in 79% of patients, while 67% of patients reported improved sleeping habits. 
Potential Adverse Side-Effects
Marijuana can produce different reactions depending on a range of individual factors, including current stress levels. While some people experience instant relief, unfortunately, others find marijuana exacerbates their symptoms and contributes to anxiety. These adverse psychological reactions are usually brought on by THC.
THC is the main psychoactive cannabinoid in marijuana. It interacts with receptors densely concentrated in regions of our brain responsible for thinking, memory, coordination, concentration, and sensation. In a recent study, researchers analyzed the self-reported emotional wellbeing of over 1,800 regular cannabis users and found that those who used high-CBD strains on the majority of occasions experienced significantly fewer psychotic symptoms.  Therefore, if you suffer from chronic stress, marijuana strains with high CBD content are advisable. Alternatively, concentrated CBD free from THC is available in the form of tinctures and capsules.
For further advice on how marijuana can help you safely manage your stress levels, contact THC Physicians today.