The Science of Stress

The Science of Stress



We all feel it. But what is it?

Having a deeper understanding of stress can help us to overcome and manage its adverse effects on our body and mind.

Signs and Symptoms of Stress

The psychological symptoms of stress include feeling overwhelmed, worry, fear, anger, tearfulness, irritability, anxiety, helplessness and/or memory problems.

Physical symptoms include heart palpitations, fatigue, stomach upset, diarrhoea, headaches, muscular aches and pains, weakened immune system and/ or high blood pressure.

Behavioural symptoms of stress include difficulty concentrating, fatigue, lacking motivation, sleep disturbance, insomnia, social withdrawal, unhealthy eating habits and/or short temper.

Sound familiar?

Definitions of Stress

The dictionary has several definitions of stress, including:

“Pressure or tension exerted on a material object,”
A state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances” and
Physiological disturbance or damage caused to an organism by adverse circumstances.”

A stressor is anything that affects one’s well being or survival, and stress is a natural human response to a stressor designed to bring us back to homeostasis. Homeostasis is the way in which the body maintains its internal equilibrium for well being and survival.

The stressor can be an external threat, for example a bomb going off or loosing your job, or it can be internal, like feeling time pressured or worried about the way you’re perceived by your colleagues.

Acute and Chronic Stress

Stress can be acute, in greater or lesser degrees. Mild acute stress, like starting a new job or giving a presentation, can lead to developing an adaptive response to meeting life’s challenges, but severe stress, like being exposed to a violent and life threatening crime, can lead to Post-traumatic Stress Disorder or other mental health problems.

Chronic stress, on the other hand, is stress that continues over an extended period of time, such as chronic health issues, relationship difficulties, financial problems, bullying, social isolation or living in an unsafe environment.

The Physiology of Stress

The body’s stress response kicks in as soon as we realise the presence of a stressor. Signals are sent to the brain and hormones are released in order to cope with the stress. The energy demands of the body are shifted from long term processes, like digestion, tissue growth and sexual functioning to processes that enable to us to deal with the situation at hand, including utilising muscles required for action, oxygen in the lungs, decreased pain sensitivity, and reduced tendency to bleed.

The hormonal response to stress happens along the HPA (hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal) axis. The hypothalamus, pituitary gland and the adrenals glands control our reactions to stress, and are responsible for many body processes like digestion, immune functioning, mood, sexuality and energy.

The hypothalamus, the command centre at the base of the brain, is stimulated by the amygdala, an almond shaped set of neurons, located deep in the brains medial temporal lobe, which plays a key role in both the fear response and pleasure. The hypothalamus then excites the pituitary gland, a pea size master gland that sits behind the nose, whose main function is to secrete hormones into the blood stream, regulating many of the bodies vital functions.

The pituitary gland then alerts the adrenal glands, a triangle shaped gland that sits on top of the kidneys, and the adrenal medulla (the inner part of the gland) secretes the neurotransmitter adrenaline (epinephrine), which instigates the fight-or-flight response. This results in an increase in pulse rate, sending more glucose and oxygen to the brain (to keep you more alert), muscles and lungs, a constriction and release of protein in blood vessels to assist with clotting, and a conversion of glycogen to glucose and release of fatty acids from fat stores to supply us with a ready source of available energy. The hormone cortisol is then released, to build back up energy reserves depleted by the surge of adrenaline, by converting food into energy storage with glycogen and fat. Cortisol can continue to be released for hours after the stressor.

Stress and the Autonomic Nervous System

The stress response also activates the Autonomic Nervous System, the part of the nervous system that is in charge of bodily functions, but is not under our conscious control. There are three main branches of the Autonomic Nervous System, the sympathetic, the parasympathetic and the enteric.

The sympathetic branch is activated during the stress response and is like an accelerator in a car, triggering the fight-or-flight response and providing the body with a burst of energy to respond to perceived dangers. The parasympathetic branch, on the other hand, promotes rest-and-digest is like the brake in the car, dampening the stress response once the threat has passed.

The enteric branch of the nervous system is not widely discussed, but actually has a similar number of neurons as the spinal cord and is sometimes called the little brain. The enteric nervous system is in embedded in the lining of the gut and orchestrates various digestive functions. It is adversely affect by stress.

When the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system kicks in, it prepares you to meet the stressor, including pupils dilating, heart speeding up, digestion slowing down and blood pressure rising.

Activation of the sympathetic nervous system is designed to save our lives in times of crisis, but if it is triggered too often, it can result in stress related disease, including mental health problems, cardiovascular disease, obesity, gastrointestinal problems and more.

Good Stress and Bad Stress

Stress has received a bad reputation, but a little bit of stress can actually be a good thing. It can help to keep us stay alive when we’re in danger and it can actually improve our performance.

Yerkes-Dodson Law (figure from Storost)

Based on the work of Robert Yerkes and John Dodson, the Yerkes-Dodson Law (1908) states that arousal (stress) improves performance up to a certain point, then performance reduces as arousal increases.

Optimal performance is achieved with a moderate amount of arousal.

Responses to Stress

In their book, The Science of Stress, Neuropsychiatrists Albert Yeung, Ana Ivkovic and Gregory Fricchione describe three typical responses to stress.

Firstly, the stressor and the individuals ability to respond may be well matched, and the response results in a return to homeostasis. This is likely to be a less severe or threatening stressor.

Secondly, the stressor may be excessive or continual and be greater than the individual’s capacity to respond. This results in vulnerability as a result of stress. This is likely to be more severe or ongoing stressor.

Thirdly, while the stressor may be excessive or ongoing, there is a good match between the stressor and the individual’s capacity to respond, leading to post-traumatic growth of anti-fragility. This is not always discussed in relation to stress and trauma, but is an important and powerful catalyst for growth and developing inner strength and wisdom.

Managing Stress

The good news is that there are many strategies that help to reduce, manage and prevent stress, including counselling, relaxation training, breath work, mindfulness based practices and meditation.

My personal favourites include practicing Embodied Rest, iRest Meditation, walking in nature, practicing yoga, spending time with friends and loved ones, and finding someone you can trust to talk to about stressful issues and creating a life you love.


Harvard Health Publishing. Understanding the Stress Response. Published March 2011, Updated May 2018.
Million, Mulugeta, and Larauche. Muriel. (2016). Stress, Sex and the Enteric Nervous System. Neurogastroenterology and Motility :The Official Journal of the European Gastrointestinal Motility Society. 28(9):1283-1289.
Pfeiffer, Ronald F. (2007). Neurology of Gastroenterology and Herpetology. In Neurology and Clinical Neuroscience. Edited by Schapira, Anthony. Chapter 114 (pp 1511 – 1524). Elsevier.
Storost, Konrad. (2016). Voluntary Takeover in Automated Driving.10.13140/RG.2.2.35185.68965.
Yerkes, Robert M., and Dodson, John D. (1908). The Relation of Strength of Stimulus to Rapidity of Habit-Formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, 18, 459-482.
Varvogli, Lisa and Darviri, Christina (2011). Stress management techniques: evidence-based procedures that reduce stress and promote health. Health Science Journal, 5(2), 74-89.
Yeung, Albert S., Ivkovic, Ana and Fricchione, Gregory L. (2016). The Science of Stress. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.


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The Worry Train

The Worry Train


I find there is a complex interplay between the various factors that lead to maternal anxiety.

Anxiety can intensify after the birth of a first child, as there is a sense of things being special with the novelty and uncertainty that the first child brings, and the enormous learning curve that the mother is on. Also, some women have unreal expectations that everything will be perfect, which can come from not having had prior experience with raising children, and an attachment to a former life where they enjoyed a feeling of “being in control.” It is time when idealism and realism can collide.

I have heard a mother describe it as the ‘Worry Train.’

Sometimes there are very specific and unrelenting worries, such as the baby’s health, or the lack of a routine, but other times there are no precise fears, but instead just a pervasive sense of vulnerability and that something bad could or might happen.

Our first born was quite an unsettled baby in the first year, who cried a lot and didn’t sleep much. I remember the anxiety that my partner experienced and how at 3am this could become a cascade. Even with all my medical knowledge and experience in a neonatal unit, as a Father it was difficult not to worry.

We can look back at it now with greater understanding, insight and perspective, and even gratitude that our own personal experience gives us empathy for what most, if not all new mothers go through.


The Anatomy of Anxiety

Anxiety is an emotion. We have an emotion first before we have a thought. The emotional neurons are faster than thought neurons. This is the result of millions of years of evolution.

When the emotions are very strong then they can derail our thinking. Trying to out-think your emotions even in times of low emotional charge is challenging.

We are designed to have times of high emotion and times of low emotion. We are not designed to be in state of high emotion for extended periods. Our emotional being should be like a strong tree that will sway with the winds of situational emotions then stand straight and tall always coming back to the centre.

We have emotions for a reason and they should not be ignored or suppressed. They need to acknowledged and honoured.

For this tree of emotional being to have strength we need restoration and support. Restoration of the body, physically and emotionally. Support in the home, support in the mind, support in the heart.



A mothers hormonal state is volatile after the birth of a child. This leaves her vulnerable on many levels.

Old cultures revered the post natal time and would typically allow the mother to be cocooned with the child without work or expectation typically for a month. When hormones do not recover and the sense of vulnerability remains, it starts to effect the nervous system. The nervous system goes into overdrive – a state called Sympathetic Dominance (fight or flight).

The stress button is left on. Being in constant stress is exhausting for the body, and can deplete the body of nutrients and contribute to inflammation.


Brain Changes

A mothers brain has been amazingly upgraded and modified during pregnancy. She becomes more observant to the needs of the child, studies suggest that her IQ increases as does her overall awareness.

Mothers have been installed with a radar and extra powers of perception. I would call it “Wonder Mum Super Hero!” I remember my partner being able to sense our children’s needs, by feeling it in her own body, such as cold or hunger. I can well imagine how this heightened awareness – especially if it is not recognised – could contribute to feelings of anxiety especially if a woman is not confident in her mothering skills.


The Role of Inflammation

Being pregnant is a controlled state of inflammation, and some mothers are more inflamed than others. The body compensates during pregnancy with hormones. After the pregnancy, the protective role of the hormones has gone and ideally the body returns to its “normal” state of inflammation. Frequently the inflammation doesn’t decrease or can even get worse with conditions like autoimmune disease and gut problems.

The paradox is that the great restorer of inflammation (through complex mechanisms) is sleep. The paradox lies in the fact that mothers aren’t sleeping, especially when they are anxious. It can be a slippery slope.


How to Stop the Worry Train

Things to do to in the here and now:

  • Gratitude Practices
  • Moving your body
  • Relaxing your nervous system – through yoga, acupuncture, healthy use of computers and social media (be very, very, very selective with what you expose yourself to.)
  • The breath (you will experience deeper relaxation when exhalation is longer than inhalation, like Lauren teaches in her online course A Daily Dose of Bliss). Five minutes, twice a day can make a BIG difference.
  • Laughing and singing

Things to do that will help tomorrow and next week and in a months time and in the future:

  • Adaptogenic Herbs
  • DHA
  • Correcting micronutrient imbalances such as iron, zinc and Vitamin B12
  • Reducing inflammatory foods in your diet
  • No deep fried foods and chips
  • No sugar
  • De clutter your home
  • Outsourcing and getting Help Help Help with cleaning and babysitting

Dr OsOscar Serrallachcar Serrallach is an Integrative Doctor who practices Nutritional and Environmental Medicine in Byron Bay and Melbourne, Australia.  He is the author of The Postnatal Depletion Cure: A Complete Guide to Rebuilding Your Health and Reclaiming Your Energy for Mothers of Newborns, Toddlers, and Young Children.

Oscar graduated with a medical degree (MBChB) from the Auckland School of Medicine, New Zealand in 1996. He received his fellowship of Family Medicine and General Practice in 2008 and is currently completing a Fellowship in Nutritional and Environmental Medicine.


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How to Get a Good Night’s Sleep

How to Get a Good Night’s Sleep


Good quality sleep is SUCH an important part of our well being.  When we sleep we allow our body to restore and heal itself, both on a physical and psychological level.

Depression, anxiety and stress can result in poor sleep, and poor sleep can result in depression, anxiety and stress.

So whichever way you look at it, getting a good nights sleep is vital for our well being.

If you’ve had poor sleep (and let’s face it, most of us have at some point), you know the symptoms.  We’re talking fatigue, impaired memory and concentration, irritability, general aches and pains, reduced immune functioning, poorer overall health, decreased capacity to solve problems, increased emotionality and anxiety and relationship problems.

I know for myself, life just feels so much lighter and more joyful when I’ve had at least 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep.

But what if you can’t get to sleep at night?  Or you wake up at 2am every morning and can’t get back to sleep?  Let me share some ideas about improving your chances of getting a good nights sleep.



Try cutting back on these things to promote good sleep:

  1. Caffeine, nicotine and processed sugar – try giving these up altogether, it can make an amazing difference, but if it feels too hard, try cutting out after midday
  2. Alcohol – again, if this feels too hard, just stop drinking a few hours before bed, and resist the temptation to drink yourself to sleep
  3. TV, computer, iPad just before bed – give yourself at least an hour without screen time before you head off to bed
  4. Work or study just before bed – again, give yourself at least an hour without this before going to bed
  5. Sleeping medication – if you must use medication, try using it for just a couple of nights to break the poor sleeping routines. Also, be aware that some medications (including some antidepressants) can cause sleep disturbance.
  6. Sleeping in the day – see if you can stop doing this completely as it can throw out your natural circadian rhythm (unless you have a baby who is keeping you up at night, in this case, sleep whenever you can!).  If you need a rest in the day, try a relaxation meditation like this deep mindful yogic relaxation practice instead.
  7. Watching the clock in bed – you might like to get rid of your clock altogether, or perhaps just face it away from you in bed
  8. Telling yourself ‘go to sleep right now‘ – it just doesn’t work!  To get to sleep we need to relax the brain, not give it orders.  Let the conscious mind take a break and allow the unconscious mind (the part of your mind that keeps your heart beating and your lungs breathing, even when you’re asleep) to take over.   Say to yourself ‘I’ve done everything I can today.  Now it’s time to relax, switch off and let go.’
  9. Berating yourself for not sleeping – be kind and nurturing to yourself!  Treat yourself like you would treat a partner or child who was having trouble sleeping.


Here’s some great things you can do to promote good sleep:

  1. Make your bedroom a calm and nurturing space (so clean up your bedroom and get rid of any clutter), and only use your bedroom for sleep and sex (this will strengthen the association between your bed and sleeping)
  2. Get up at the same time every morning, regardless of the amount of sleep you had the previous night (in Ayurveda, they recommend getting up before 6am)
  3. Only go to bed when you’re actually sleepy – mild sleep deprivation results in a more rapid and efficient sleep
  4. Practice yoga asana and/or exercise every day – try exercising 5-6 hours before bed, but not closer than 3 hours
  5. Avoid noise – so if your partner snores, turns, kicks or talks in their sleep consider sleeping in separate beds for a while or wearing earplugs (this can actually be great for your relationship, as if you’re sleeping well you’ll feel more loving and less likely to feel resentment that they’re keeping you awake at night)
  6. Find a comfortable sleeping temperature for your bedroom – 15-20 degrees (celcius) is considered ideal
  7. Avoid large meals close to bed time – only eat a light snack before bed if you are hungry
  8. If you have a tendency to lie awake thinking about all the things you need to do the next day, try writing your to do list before getting to bed (getting it down on paper can help to get it out of your head)
  9. Practice relaxation during the day like my deep mindful yogic relaxation – you’ll get really great at deeply relaxing and your baseline stress levels will gradually be reduced, both of which will help you drift off to sleep more easily
  10. Get happy – you’re more likely to be able to sleep when you’re happy.  Make changes in your life to increase your happiness.  Spend time doing things you enjoy.  Make an appointment to come and see me for counselling if you’d like some help with this.


Develop a night time sleep ritual.  This might include:

  1. Turning the lights down low, perhaps burning a candle
  2. Playing some calming music and/or burning calming essential oils
  3. Drink some calming herbal tea
  4. Slowly and mindfully brush your teeth and change into your pyjamas
  5. Listen to my Blissful Sleep Meditation to help you calm the body, the nervous system and the mind, and to easily transition from waking to sleeping
  6. Create a night time ritual that works for you


And if you find you’re lying awake in the middle of the night, try this:

  1. Close your eyes, and become conscious of the warmth and the heaviness of your body, and your body breathing naturally and rhythmically – this helps to sink into a deeply relaxed state
  2. Remember that resting peacefully is almost as restorative as sleep – so don’t worry if you have problems getting or staying asleep.  Try saying to yourself ‘I’m just going to lie here peacefully and relax, if sleep comes that would be nice, but if it doesn’t that’s ok because resting is almost as restorative as sleep anyway.’
  3. If you’re having trouble resting peacefully, play my Blissful Sleep Meditation again (if you’re lying awake thinking, try the thoughts version)


Worrying about lack of sleep is a vicious cycle.  The more you worry, the less likely you are to sleep, and the more likely you are to continue worrying.  Worrying about sleep will most likely reduce your amount of sleep.  And remember that the majority of things we worry about never happen (some people say 90%!).  On the rare occasion that they do, we somehow manage to deal with them.  Try saying to yourself ‘whatever happens, I can deal with it.’

Some people believe that they will go crazy or have a nervous breakdown if they don’t get enough sleep.  This is simply not true.  Sleep deprivation experiments were carried out on medical students where they were not permitted to sleep more than one hour per night for a month or more.  None of them went crazy or had a nervous break down. If you start worrying about this, try telling yourself ‘I may be tired tomorrow if I don’t get enough sleep, but there’s no way I’ll go crazy.’

It is perfectly normal to wake during the night.  Most people wake up once or twice, to go to the bathroom or just turn over, and then they go back to sleep.  Instead of worrying when you wake up during the night, try saying to yourself ‘it’s perfectly normal to wake up during the night, I’ll just go back to sleep now‘ or’ it’s not time for me to get up yet, I still have a few hours left to sleep.‘  If sleep doesn’t come, just rest and relax (remember this is almost as restorative as sleep anyway).

But first and foremost, go gently!  Be kind to yourself.  Find out what works for you.  All these are just suggestions, try them all, or just try one or two.  Ultimately YOU are the expert on yourself.  So listen to your intuition, and you can’t go wrong.

Sweet dreams,


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