Stress is a word that is bandied about all the time, but do you know what being stressed actually means for your body?
It is important to understand what stress means to your body in order to ensure stress hormones are enhancing your performance instead of hindering it.
A Quick Lesson on the Biology of Stress!
We all have a different capacity to cope with stress and have differing stressors (the things that trigger our stress). However, as you’ll see below, we only have one biological way of responding to stress within the body, irrespective of what type of stressor you experience – it might be emotional distress, a physical threat, or psychological demands that are constantly playing on your mind. Even being too hot or cold, being bored, and certainly being nervous can trigger our stress response.
When a stressor kicks in, the body goes in to ‘fight or flight’ (FF) mode. A whole cascade of hormones put the body into a state of alert, preparing the body to take action. Blood rushes to the arms and legs and away from the trunk (the digestion therefore goes on pause); your heart rate and blood pressure rise, getting you revved up; you even produce more platelets—platelets are blood cells the clot our blood—every time that you are stressed. For all intents and purposes, the body is preparing for injury!This is a primal response, appropriate for the hunter-gatherer who needed to be able to suddenly run from a marauding animal or chase down a tasty gazelle for dinner. These days, so few of our stressful triggers require a dynamic, physical response, yet our bodies know no other way of responding to a stressor.
How Stress Can Negatively Affect Your Voice!
So what does this mean to your health and your voice? Well, if you are not getting enough sleep, you are worrying about money/work/relationships, trying to manage 2 jobs, not eating well, overstimulating the body through excess caffeine and sugar intake, over-exercising, not moving enough… your body will be overwhelmed with stress hormones.
Excess stress hormones in the system have a direct effect on your immune system – you’ll find it hard to shake off coughs and colds. They also affect your ability to get a good night’s sleep, leaving you feeling exhausted when you need to be energized for a gig. Your digestion will very rapidly show signs of distress; stress is one of the most common causes for bloating and particularly acid reflux, which can have a hugely detrimental effect on vocal quality, range and vocal stamina.
Also, as you can’t digest your food well if you are eating when stressed, you can become malnourished, making you even more vulnerable to illness, plus overstimulating the stress glands (adrenals) can also result in unstable blood sugar levels, leaving you feeling wiped out and craving sugar at inappropriate times. You might even find your saliva suddenly dries up if you are overly stressed. This is a classic sign of being in extreme fight or flight mode as your body is so revved up and ready to take action that your salivary glands cease production as saliva is required to break down carbohydrates in our food. If you trigger FF, your body is expecting physical action and is certainly not expecting you to stop for a sandwich – so no need for saliva. However, if you’re about to step on stage, you are going to really struggle to get a decent note out if your lips are sticking to your teeth.
Harnessing Stress for Good
This all said, it’s important to keep things in perspective, as short, sharp bursts of stress can actually boost the immune system, enhance brain function, stabilize sleep patterns and bring out the best performance possible from you. It’s prolonged stress exposure, without moments of calm, rest and rejuvenation allowing the stress hormones to rebalance, that cause the body to become fatigued, run down and vulnerable to illness.
When you are moments away from stepping on stage, that surge of adrenaline will enhance your performance and bring out that extra special quality that is so hard to find in rehearsal. However, remember not to eat just before going on stage, as the stress hormones that make you feel so alive and in the moment just before you go on are the same hormones that literally stop your digestive system from working.
To ensure your stress hormones work for you and not against you, follow these key principles: Ensure you find some time every day to stop the stimulation from computers, phones, charging around, etc. Focus on deep breathing: long slow breaths through the nose and out of the mouth, really using your diaphragm to get the lungs fully working. This slow, deep breathing is a really effective way of reducing the stress hormones in the blood stream.
- Take regular exercise in a form that you enjoy. This will help to reduce overall levels of the stress hormones.
- Eat foods rich in magnesium, vitamin C and vitamin B5. These are the key nutrients that the adrenal glands need to remain healthy. This means eating whole (unprocessed) foods like nuts and seeds, fish, green leafy and highly coloured vegetables, pulses (lentils, chickpeas, beans etc.), and even dark chocolate – which happens to be very high in magnesium, on a daily basis.
- Ensure you get regular, good quality sleep. The best way to do this is to go to bed and get up around the same time every day. This can be a real challenge if you’re regularly gigging, but do not underestimate the importance of getting nightly deep sleep for repair and restoration of your organs and cells – that includes repair of your vocal cords.
- Don’t abuse caffeine and sugar. These are both stimulants that trigger the adrenal glands to produce stress hormones. People commonly use coffee and sugary snacks to give them an energy surge. This is a temporary fix that actually causes more problems in the long term.
- When you do have something to eat, make sure you eat slowly, chew well and never eat while feeling stressed out, uptight, rushed or distracted. Being able to digest and absorb the nutrients in your food is imperative to a strong immune system and healthy digestive function. Good digestion cannot take place if you are busy doing other things while eating.
- Remember that the dreaded acid reflux aka heartburn—a singer’s worst enemy—is most likely to occur if you are stressed and especially if you are eating quickly and eating poor quality foods while stressed.