What is stress, and how does it contribute to overall health?
We have all experienced some stress in our lives, to the extent that it is often considered just a part of being alive. For many, this type of tension is so commonplace that they decide there is nothing they can do about it and just accept it as something they will always have to deal with. But chronic stress can have a significant negative impact on one’s health. How, then, can we identify these stressors and manage them so that we can lead healthier lives?
Stress comes from any event or thought that makes you feel angry, frustrated or nervous. It’s a feeling of tension, either physically, emotionally or both. Some stress is productive, as a normal human reaction, like the near miss when you slam on the brakes, avoiding the car that ran the red light. Other stress can come from personal conflicts with family or friends, high pressure work situations, or caring for a sick loved one. Stressful situations test our strength and resilience.
Ironically, we actually need the benefit of stress as a survival mechanism. In the early days of man, stress was necessary. For example it kept humans alert and ready to run if a wild animal was about to attack. Today stress still helps you avoid danger. And the pressure of a deadline helps you get your job done at work. But if you’re feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope with the strain, you may be experiencing the type of stress that can cause real physical and mental problems.
Acute stress lasts for a brief period of time and goes away quickly, like the way your heart races when you suddenly must slam on the brakes to avoid an accident.
But when you become unemployed, or have a new baby, the stress lasts longer. Even dealing with the ongoing changes and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic is a stressor. When the stress lasts for weeks or months it is considered chronic stress. And it’s chronic stress that has the potential to take the biggest toll on your health.
How does the body respond to stress?
Stress affects every part of your body, from your muscles to your breathing, from your heart to your intestines.
When you become stressed, your body releases adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol as messengers to trigger your sense of fight or flight. One of the first responses to stress is tensing of muscles. In fact, tension headaches and migraine headaches are due to muscular tension through the head, neck and shoulders. As a result of this muscle tension, your heart rate increases, pushing to provide oxygen to the tense muscles.
Stress, like strong emotions, can cause problems with your breathing. Stress may cause you to unconsciously hold your breath or alternately begin to hyperventilate. This happens because your airway and lungs begin to squeeze tighter with the tension.
The hormones and neurotransmitters released when stressed can also cause problems with your digestive system. Your stomach slows digestion of food which can cause an upset stomach. At the same time, your intestines may seem to work more quickly.
Long term, or chronic, stress causes the adrenal glands to release a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol increases appetite which can cause overeating. A British study found that people who had high cortisol levels in response to stress had a greater tendency to eat snacks when experiencing day-to-day problems as compared to people who had low cortisol levels in response to stress.
In addition, the increased production of cortisol has been shown to cause high blood pressure and creates artery-clogging deposits. This can lead to further heart disease.
Research has also suggested that chronic stress changes the way the brain works. Your brain is normally protected with a blood-brain barrier that keeps harmful circulating molecules out. Continued stress causes the barrier to leak and inflammatory proteins are then able to get into the brain. This can result in depression, anxiety and addiction.
How can you counter the stressful reactions?
Learning to calm yourself and relaxing your muscles with deep breathing techniques is a key technique for coping with stress. Envision a tranquil place and repeat soothing words to yourself.
Don’t isolate yourself. Many people react to chronic stress by avoiding other people. But if you can do the opposite and call on your closest friends or relatives, you’ll find that the social support will ease your anxiety and tension.
Watch what you’re saying to yourself. When your world seems to be one frustrating or anxious situation on top of another, you may be tempted to tell yourself that you’re to blame or that nothing ever works out for you. One way to change this is to think of three things you are thankful for each day. When you recognize what you have, your self-talk will become more positive.
Music can be a stress reducer. Listening to your favorite music, singing along and even dancing can help lower the cortisol triggered by stress and help you feel more in control.
Go for a walk, outdoors if possible. Walking in nature can be restorative. If you can take a long walk, you’ll be able to reduce the worry on your overwhelmed brain. In fact, any type of exercise can help you manage stress. The movement involved in exercise helps release daily tensions, and focusing on your exercise results in energy and a more optimistic outlook.
Be sure you’re getting plenty of sleep and eating foods that are good for you. Staying up late worrying and eating junk food will only make the frustration, anger or anxiety worse.
What’s stressing you?
The more you know, the more you can adapt and control the way stress affects you. For example, if you find that crowded stores and long checkout lines are stressful for you, plan ahead to do your shopping when the stores are less likely to be crowded, like early mornings or late evenings.
Managing stress will help you in many ways. You’ll get sick less often and if you do get sick, you’ll recover more quickly. You will sleep better and you’ll find your mood is more optimistic. Although no one can plan for every stressful event or situation, the more often you can identify what is causing you to feel tense and anxious, the easier it will become to manage stress. And by managing stress, you increase your chances of living a longer, healthier life.