Stress…something we all probably feel familiar with in one way or another, right? We might be familiar with what causes us to be stressed, the way we feel when we anticipate a stressful situation, or maybe we even recognize the way our body responds during stressful situations. But, are you familiar with the true effects of long-term stress on the body? Stress has a large impact on our health when it is something our body is repeatedly experiencing. They might not be noticeable to us, but the physiological side effects of stress play a pivotal role in our current and future health.
What is Stress? Stress is defined as a physical, mental, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension. This can arise from an event or thought that causes you to feel frustrated, angry, or nervous. Stress is also the response to a challenge; in this case, if present in short bursts, stress can be positive. It is a warning system for the body, causing the fight or flight stress response to occur.
The Fight or Flight Response When the brain perceives stress, the body has a natural reaction that occurs without us having to think about it – the fight or flight response. When this kicks in, heart rate speeds up, more blood is pumped into the muscles, less blood is delivered to the less vital functions of the body. During this response, the adrenal glands release the hormones adrenaline and cortisol into the body. Adrenaline causes an increase in heart rate, blood pressure and the amount of energy that is available for use by the body. An increase in cortisol causes an increase of sugar in the bloodstream and makes sure the brain is able to use it well. It also ensures that the body has enough resources available for any tissue repair that may be necessary. In addition to this, cortisol causes a decrease in functioning of the “less important” bodily functions. These functions that are decreased include the immune system, digestive system, reproductive system and growth processes. While these are, indeed, important functions of the body, they are not seen as important in the moment of danger.
Where’s the Problem? The fight or flight response, as previously described, is suited for instances of life-threatening stressors. Many of our day-to-day stressors today are not truly life-threatening. However, our body does not know this. Instead, it perceives stress and does what it can to protect itself. When we spend a lot of our days, weeks, or months under stress, our body is trying to protect itself by carrying out each of these changes. This poses an issue: we do not need all of these responses in our daily lives. These responses do go away once the perceived threat has passed, but what about the people who are constantly feeling stressed? While the fight or flight response is beneficial when it is needed, the problem arises when the body is in this stage for a prolonged amount of time.
Overtime, an increased exposure to cortisol and other stress hormones can lead to anxiety, depression, digestive problems, headaches, heart disease, sleep problems, weight gain and memory and concentration impairment. Stress has become something we all think we should just “deal” with; that statement is far from true. If we continue to simply put up with the stress, we risk developing the health complications related to increased exposure of stress hormones. In order to avoid this, we must do what we can to improve the body’s response to stress and help to better manage it.
What Can You Do? Helping our bodies become more resilient to stress is necessary since we cannot just get rid of all stress in our lives (what would life look like?!). There are a variety of ways to help the body manage stress. The following are simple options:
- Practice self-care: eat well, do physical activity often (doesn’t have to be exercise – have fun with it! Dance, go for a leisurely bike ride, take a brisk walk, jump rope, etc.), get enough sleep, stay hydrated
- Talk with a friend: having a sense of community and good friendships are necessary for our health and can help to alleviate stress. You and your friend(s) will benefit from this!
- Scale back (when you can): see if there is any area in your life where you can take a step back
- Try relaxation techniques: yoga, deep breathing, guided imagery and meditation are all relaxation techniques. See what works for you! During relaxation, strive to focus your attention on something calming and increase awareness of your body.
- Spend time in nature: unplug and get outside! Simply doing this can do wonders for your mind and body.
- Allow time for hobbies: engage in something enjoyable that you don’t get stressed or competitive about.
- Have a sense of humor: believe it or not, laughter actually is a remedy for stress! Find a funny movie, video clip, read jokes, etc. – do something to make yourself laugh!
The goal of partaking in any or all of the options listed above is to help the body get back into a parasympathetic state – as opposed to the parasympathetic state it is in when under stress. The parasympathetic nervous system is known for allowing the body to “rest and digest.” The sympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, does not allow for this to happen. This is because, as it was discussed before, some functions of the body shut down or are slowed when under stress. Being in the parasympathetic state helps the body to recover and restores the body to a calm and composed state.
With school already being in full swing, or starting just around the corner, it is important to remember that adults are not the only ones who experience stress – children and teenagers do too! Keep this in mind, not only during the school year, but at all times. Encourage your children to partake in stress-relieving activities so they can reap the benefits too. Better yet, try to do them all together!
At Integrative Health and Wellness, we care to discuss stress because it is a lifestyle component that affects our overall health. So, while we primarily focus on nutrition, we believe paying attention to all components of a client’s life is important when striving for optimal health and wellness. We cannot only focus on one area of health and neglect all the others! How will you promote relaxation in your everyday life?