If someone asks, “What is stress?” you probably have a visceral reaction. Maybe your gut tenses. Your palms sweat. An invisible belt tightens around your temples. Or maybe you suddenly start dreading your next holiday with your in-laws.
Whatever your personal experience is, you know stress when you feel it. But what about those pockets of tension that pop up when you don’t have time to attend to them? You get bad news about a loved one or read something distressing on Twitter. You frown, hunch up your shoulders, and go back to work. You might think you’ve shaken it off, but your muscles and brain chemistry haven’t. This kind of tension builds up leaving you chronically stressed.
Stress is supposed to get your body ready to move a mountain. It increases your blood pressure, slows your digestion, spikes the hormones that wake you up, and diverts circulation to your big muscles. When you’re primed with stress, you’re ready to fight off a sabre-toothed tiger or, more realistically, sprint across the yard to catch your two-year-old before he toddles out onto the street. These high-alert responses are helpful when you have an intense job to do—athletes, performers, and first responders make these adrenalin dumps work for them. This activating stress sharpens senses, laser-guides focus, and fills the body with energy to push through hesitation and attack the task at hand.
This cycle of stress and accomplishment can be beneficial, building up our self-confidence and making it easier for us to tolerate stressful feelings in the future. We call this "eustress," or positive stress. But when we can't make our stress productive–when life feels out of control, and we can't do anything to fix it–the chemicals of stress can build up in our bodies and wreak havoc. We call that "distress," or negative stress.
Stress and the Body
The main effects of negative stress on our bodies are physical (inflammation), psychological (limited processing), and behavioural (diminished participation in the activities of life).
When we talk about inflammation, it can be visible, such as the swelling of an injured joint, or internal, such as the irritation of organs or nerves. Wherever inflammation occurs, our body systems don't function properly. This can result in pain, illness, and dysfunction. Some conditions linked to inflammation are asthma (inflammation in the airways), migraine headaches (inflammation of sensory nerves), and Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). Excess stress is known to make all of these conditions, and many others, worse.
On top of aggravating diagnosed health conditions, stress can also lower our overall immunity and make us more prone to viruses and infections.
Stress and the Brain
Negative stress shifts our brain activity out of the prefrontal cortex–where we problem-solve, consider decisions, and make plans of action. It moves blood flow into the amygdala, where we make quick, emotional decisions. This shift is handy in a life-or-death situation, but not helpful in most of daily life, when we need to be thoughtful and rational.
Researchers have also found that chronic stress can lead to memory loss and brain shrinkage.
Stress and Behaviour
When it comes to managing stress, there is a cluster of catch-22s. For example, we know that exercise and physical activity can help reduce the levels of stress hormones and their effects on our bodies. But if there is too much pain and dysfunction, we might not be able to get moving.
Another complication is our brain physiology. When we’re calm, our prefrontal cortex tells us to slow down, narrow our priorities, and focus on one thing at a time. But when we get overly stressed, our amygdala shouts for binge-eating, self-medicating, and swings from an obsession with to avoidance of important tasks. This behaviour can make us fall behind on our obligations, pile up our to-do lists at work and home, and put a strain on our relationships. Then we feel guilty and overwhelmed, and our stress levels rise even further.
It’s easy to see how quickly problems with stress can spiral into physical, professional, and social issues. The more we learn about stress, the more we understand how important it is to develop relaxation routines and coping strategies.
The golden rules for stress management are:
● Good Sleep and Nutrition
● Exercise and Mental Engagement
● Relaxation and Mindfulness
● Problem-Solving and Prioritizing
● Connection and Support
There are many approaches to improving these areas of your health, including yoga, meditation, therapy, and medication. Some people find that purposefully using cannabis also helps them take control of these parts of their life, particularly when conventional strategies aren’t working for them.
Cannabis and Stress
Some of the properties of cannabis can make it potentially helpful in a stress-management program. Studies have found that CBD, the main non-intoxicating component of cannabis, can lower inflammation and reduce pain. For people who get physical relief from cannabis, this can make a huge difference—with less pain, it’s easier to sleep, get active, relax, and connect with friends.
Learn More: A Medical Introduction to CBD
Steph, 44, found the pain relief from cannabis hugely improved her quality of life. "It's amazing," she said. "I haven't used a painkiller in 2 years thanks to cannabis. I sleep better, and it helps my fibromyalgia pain tremendously."
As you might expect, the most common benefit people report from using cannabis is relaxation. THC, the main psychoactive component in cannabis, is found by some to help bypass the over-thinking, self-conscious type of stress.
Jennifer, from Calgary, says, "It takes my mind off intrusive, obsessive thoughts." Although she admits cannabis isn't a good fit for everyone, she adds, "If it works, it works."
Alyssa, 34, found that cannabis helped her face stressful problems. She said, "I think it helps bring me down in the moment of panic. However, if I don't address the cause of the stress, of course, my stress levels will only go up as the high fades. Relaxing with cannabis allows me to be more rational in problem-solving. By taking my stressed emotions out of the equation, I can better access the issues at hand."
Is Cannabis Always a Good Choice for Stress Management?
Alyssa points out a downside that cannabis has in common with strong pain-relief medications. "I'm a big cannabis supporter," she says, "however it can be habit-forming, and people who use it to run away from their problems aren't going to get positive life results."
She adds, “Also, there is always the worry of inhaling smoke and the risks that poses on your lungs. But there are lots of alternatives such as vaping, edibles, tinctures, patches, etc.” People with breathing difficulties should talk to their doctor to find out if any of these methods of cannabis use could be right for them.
Amanda, 34, points out that it's not a good idea to rely exclusively on cannabis to manage stress. "There are certain limitations such as employment and driving, where sometimes we are unable to medicate at that time and place." This is an excellent reminder that it's essential to have a variety of tools in your relaxation arsenal, so you can maintain a safe, healthy lifestyle and always have a strategy available to cope with difficult moments.
Learn More: Relaxation, Self-Care and Cannabis
If you’re going to integrate cannabis into your stress-management routine, Alyssa says, “It's all about moderation! Too much of anything is bad news.”
There is never a bad time to reflect on the stress in your life. Although it might feel nerve-wracking to contemplate, it's empowering to take control of your health. Whether you're craving a soothing new yoga class, a compassionate, professional guide, or a more active lifestyle, just make sure you get educated, pay attention to your body, and seek out the choices that are right for you.