How Does Stress Affect the Body?
Stress is your body’s way of reacting to a threat or a type of demand. When the body feels stress, your hypothalamus (a tiny region in your brain) signals your adrenal glands (located atop your kidneys) to release a surge of hormones, which include adrenaline and cortisol, into the bloodstream. As these hormones are released, the liver is triggered to release more blood sugar, which gives you an energy kick, your breathing becomes more rapid, while your heartbeat and blood pressure rise.
Contrary to popular belief, stress isn’t always a bad thing. In some cases, stress can be beneficial as it can help you focus, it can motivate you to do well and even make you perform better, such as when you are starting a new project or a new job. However, experiencing stress over a long period of time can be detrimental as it can take a real toll both on your physical and mental health.
Recent stress statistics show the top seven causes of stress in the U.S. to be:
- job pressure
- poor nutrition
- media overload, and
- sleep deprivation.
Other statistics show 77% of people regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress, 54% of people say stress has caused them to fight with people close to them, and 30% of people say they’re always or often under stress at work. Long-term activation of the stress response system can cause major health problems, including anxiety, depression, digestive problems, headaches, heart disease, sleep issues, weight gain, and memory and concentration impairment.
Stress can also interfere with our personal and work lives in many ways, and where left unaddressed, has the potential to erode the quality of our close relationships. When a person is stressed, he/she becomes more distracted, withdrawn and less affectionate. Because of his inability to focus on what’s in front of him/her, a person affected by stress will have little or no time for leisure, leading to alienation between partners, family members and even co-workers.
A stressed person is more likely to notice negative behaviours and is less able or unable to stop himself/herself from reacting badly to certain situations. This is due to the fact that stress saps the cognitive resources of a person, leading them to be more impatient and less able to give the people and circumstances around him/her the benefit of the doubt when they behave strangely.
To put it briefly, stress creates unnecessary issues and prevents a person’s ability to deal constructively with any complications that arise. Hence, it is vital to learn how to deal with stressors in our life.
How Stress Affects the Body
Stress is everywhere and it affects everyone. You may think stress to be a mental phenomenon, but did you know that it can take a toll on your physical health as well?
Stress Affects Your Mental Health
Prolonged mental stress increases levels of the stress hormone cortisol to an undesired level. Cortisol is known to slowly kill the cells in your hippocampus – an important brain structure that regulates your emotions. Cortisol also dramatically decreases the rate at which new brain cells are made. As a result, stress increases your chances of having memory problems, sleep problems, anxiety, and even depression.
Stress Increases Your Risk of Heart Disease
When you are stressed, your blood pressure rises. Eating fatty food in stressful times also results in high cholesterol. You are also more likely to smoke or consume alcohol when stressed. Altogether, stress increases the risk factors that contribute to heart disease.
Stress Increases Your Risk of Diabetes
High levels of cortisol can reduce the action of insulin in the body. This can further cause an increase in your blood sugar levels – a major symptom and a precursor to type 2 diabetes.
Stress Can Cause Back Pain
Prolonged stress causes the adrenal glands located above your kidneys to get fatigued, as they continue to keep releasing cortisol over a long period of time. As a result, the nerves as well as muscles in your lower back may contract and result in back pain. In addition, stress also reduces your pain threshold or ability to cope with pain. Pain and stress tend to follow a vicious cycle (i.e. stress causes pain, which may amplify stress, and so on).
Stress Increases Your Risk of Infections and Lifestyle Diseases
Stress increases levels of free radicals that are capable of damaging healthy tissues and organs. Increased levels of radicals result in oxidative stress, which is a state of imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in the body.
Oxidative stress contributes to some major chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer. An increased level of cortisol can also affect the production of white blood cells and reduce the immune power of your body. As a result, you may catch infections easily and fall sick more often.
Stress Can Result in Weight Gain
A rise in cortisol level causes the brain to use available glucose too fast. As a result, your body craves sugar and high-calorie foods when stressed. Consumption of fatty food results in fat deposition and eventually causes weight gain.
As you can see, ignoring chronic stress can affect your health physically and mentally. Although stress (occasionally) is a fact of life, it is possible to manage it effectively.
Things You Can Do to Help You Manage Stress
Numerous studies have shown that too much stress leads to headaches, higher blood pressure and an upset stomach, memory loss, disrupted sleep and an increased risk for heart attacks. Stress can do a number on your mind and body when left unaddressed. It drains your immune system and messes with your ability to concentrate. Having tense, sore muscles, shallow breathing and increased heart rate are all signs that you might be too stressed out.
Staying away from major stress is easier said than done. But there are some tips you can consider implementing that may assist you to feel calmer inside when your outside life gets too hectic. What is considered helpful may vary from person to person, however, let’s take a look now at a few strategies you may like to try, in order to relieve chronic stress.
Build Supportive Relationships
Resilience is your ability to bounce back from any form of adversity (e.g. stress). Generally speaking, higher social intelligence is associated with higher levels of happiness. Building strong ties with your family members and close friends, who can support you and provide practical assistance, can help you to become more resilient when coping with adversities, such as stress.
Additionally, building supportive relationships and expanding your social network (such as by joining a yoga group, volunteering for an environmental cause or enrolling in a course) can bring joy and perspective to your life and that of those around you. This may, in turn, make stressful matters seem less significant in the bigger picture.
Stay in to Recuperate
When feeling stressed, you might feel the need to tackle everything on your to-do list, all at once. However, that sets you up for burnout and failure. Instead, find a simple routine task to complete at home, when you have the energy, like doing the dishes or vacuuming. Completing a repetitive task allows your brain to pare down and focus – which is of great benefit for a scattered mind.
After you finish cleaning your house, clean yourself. A relaxing warm bath or a hot shower can help to boost your mood.
If you find stress is keeping you up at night, try a relaxing activity such as progressive muscle relaxation just before bed. Lie on your back and start with your forehead, continuing through your tummy, down through to your legs, and finally, to your toes. Repeat as needed until your muscles feel completely relaxed, then try gently drifting off to sleep.
Get Out for Good Vibes
The spiritual mantras used in some forms of yoga and meditation can help to focus the mind and stave off feelings of anxiety. If yoga or meditation is not for you, that’s OK – just getting outside for a good dose of natural light and a gentle stroll can do wonders for a stressed mind.
Exercise is a fantastic tool for alleviating stress and can help us to maintain feelings of calm even in the face of distressing events. Leave your phone behind, as all the distracting chatter from those texts, emails and social media can wait. Instead of texting or emailing your best friend, why don’t you meet up instead, and get in a good laugh? Laughter injects a surge of endorphins into the body, which creates feelings of happiness and euphoria. Laughing with a friend can be a fabulous remedy when experiencing chronic stress.
Self-care and taking some time for yourself each day is crucial when recovering from intense stress. Taking some time to treat yourself with something you enjoy can help not only to unwind your mind, but also to relax your body, which is also affected by stress. Even taking ten minutes at lunchtime, after work or in the evening before bed can do wonders. You might like to consider a warm cup of tea, mindfulness meditation, some gentle stretching, reading, listening to music, drawing or taking a relaxing shower. Whatever it is you enjoy, ensure you make even a small amount of time for yourself each day to relax and unwind (this can be particularly helpful before heading to bed).
Stop Putting Too Much Pressure on Yourself
In living your best life, it is always great to maintain balance in everything you do. Working exceptionally hard can sometimes lead to a stressful and overwhelming day-to-day routine, that often translates to an unhappy working and personal life. Many people tend to put so much pressure on themselves when working to accomplish something, not realising that there is perhaps a better and less distressing way to achieve their goals.
Whenever you are faced with a challenging situation, try to look at things from a different perspective. Instead of ruminating over something you did wrong, try to look for things in your life that are positive and make you feel grateful and happy. Write them down and be thankful for what you have, instead of going over and over your self-conceived shortcomings.
If you still feel overwhelmed by stress, it might be time for you to seek medical help to support and guide you in managing your stress effectively. Getting a medical opinion is important, as a professional is able to evaluate your personal situation and help devise a treatment plan. Many people have this belief that getting help is an indication of a weak personality. This is most certainly not the case. It is important to get help as soon as possible so you can begin to feel better. Acknowledging that you need medical assistance signifies that you are a strong person who knows when it’s time to get the assistance of others, instead of suffering in despair alone.
A big part of being healthy is feeling stress-free and happy. Thus, do not let stress erode your health. If you or someone you know are constantly feeling overwhelmed by daily life, it is best to get an appointment with an expert immediately, before stress (and its ramifications) elevate any further. Contact us at Brain Wellness Spa today, to help you get back to the happiest version of you as soon as possible.