Believe it to or not, stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can protect your life, motivate you and improve your memory. These little bursts of stress boost your body into performing at a higher level. The idea then is that immediately after the danger has passed, all your stress chemicals, cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline, will return to their normal level.
The most common example of this is our ancestors being chased by lions. The sudden boost of stress sent their body into the “fight or flight” mode, which allowed them to escape the dangerous situation. Getting out of the way of danger, staying alive: these are good things. Stress is the body's natural defense against predators and danger. This would be considered acute stress. Or more modern versions: fretting over the past or worrying about upcoming events.
If this continues, it’s said someone has Episodic acute stress. Someone who is disorganized or has too many commitments can often find themselves in this position.
Now enters the problem of chronic stress. Our lives, for the most part, aren’t ones where we are chased by tangible things that will bring us to an immediate painful demise. We have our bursts of cortisol and adrenaline to help us finish a project before a deadline, and then there’s another bigger one waiting around the corner. Our causes of stress are no longer physically, but physiological. Our fears are no longer about being eaten but social stress, job stress, emotional stress, the list just goes on. Now we are in a state of chronic stress. Stress, in everyday terms, is that feeling that people have when they are overloaded and struggling to cope with demands. Poverty, a bad marriage, chronic illness are major players in this type of stress.
When our bodies are in this state, constantly waiting to see if the lion, your boss, the bully, is just around the corner, waiting to pounce, your body feels it, in ways you may not even recognize. In fact, your body can actually become used to chronic stress and it becomes part of your personality, making reactions to stress more often and more intense.
Other ways your body can feel stress are :
- Mood - Depression, lack of focus, lack of motivation. The pleasure centers in your brain are no longer triggered by fun activities you used to enjoy. Stress literally changes your brain!
Headaches - Often when we are experiencing stress, our bodies experience too. Muscles get tight, typically in the upper back, tops of shoulders, into the neck. These tight muscles lead to headaches. These muscles are common triggers for what's known as tension headaches. 80% of people will experience this headache at some point.
Libido - Chronic stress affects your hormone levels. While not feeling up for it when your mind is somewhere else is pretty common, it could be much more than that. When your hormones aren’t level, your libido drops. When cortisol levels go up, sex hormones go do down. Libido decreases, negative self-image increases, relationships become in question and fertility can even be affected.
Sleep- When your mind is racing it seems near impossible to fall asleep. Lack of sleep brings a whole host of other problems into the picture. It can also become a vicious cycle. Your mind is racing and you can’t sleep. Not sleeping affects your mood and concentration the next day. That night your mind fixates on the problems of the day and it starts again the next day. In addition to giving your body time to repair itself, lack of rest impacts mood too.
Immune system -Your state of mind affects your body. Stress reduces your bodies ability to fight antigens and some stress hormones actually lower your bodies lymphocyte count. If you notice more colds during higher stress, it’s not just in your head.
Digestion- Rest and digest or Fight or flight. Your body is not equipped to do both. With that constant fight or flight, your body turns down signals to the digestive system. Chronic stress and the adrenaline from it can also lead to ulcers. There are lots of studies being done now about the connection between your brain and your gut too. So when your digestion gets off from stress, it can affect your brain.
Muscle tension - Most people have a tendency to store stress in their shoulders. How often have you noticed that when you’re stressed out, your shoulders become earrings? Believe it or not, there is actually supposed to be space between your shoulders and your ears. While this is the most common place, stress-related tight muscles can be anywhere; low back, glutes, neck face. Check in with your body when you're stressed out and see where you tense up.
Obesity- The first step is caused by craving comfort foods. It makes sense that after a bad day you’re going to want food that you think will make you feel better. Unfortunately, these “feel good foods” tend to be high in sodium, fat and highly processed. These cravings come from stress hormones released into your body. One of these hormones, Neuropeptide Y, even makes weight loss difficult. Putting high fat, highly processed foods in to your body and having high stress hormones is a recipe for weight gain. If this cycle continues unchecked, obesity begins and bring with it additional challenges.
Heart disease - Stress places strain on your circulatory system. An increased heart rate causes hypertension, higher cholesterol, and heart disease.
However, don’t let all of this bring you dismay. While stress is unavoidable, there are plenty of solutions to help you get through it.
Breathing/meditation - Create for yourself a schedule of peace and rest. There are countless studies on the effects that meditation has on your brain and body, including lowering blood pressure, and heart rate and improving cognitive function. Women’s Health says, “Meditation is pretty simple: just find a comfortable place, close your eyes, relax your muscles, and focus on one thing, whether it's your breathing, an object (a flower, or a painting)—or even a picture in your mind—perhaps you are sitting on a beach in the Caribbean. You can do this for as little as 10 minutes to experience benefits. The key is staying focused and not letting any distractions or thoughts enter your mind—being mindful is key.”
Massage - Massage therapy can decrease your heart rate, reduce stress hormones and overall increase your feeling of well-being. Without those tight tight shoulders, your going to respond to life in a more calm way. A massage isn’t a luxury! It keeps your body functioning correctly and at its peak level.
Exercise - Exercise releases endorphins, thus reducing stress. This doesn’t even have to be a big commitment. The current recommendation to help with stress reduction is 3 hours a week. 30 minutes 6 days a week. 1 hour 3 days a week. Whatever your schedule can allow to make it work.
Go outside - I just recently heard someone say “Something magical happens every time you go outside.” Go for a walk. You’ll be getting sun on your skin, (creating Vitamin D) doing some deep breathing and getting exercise.
Planning - this is my personal Go-to to handle stress. When life is getting out of control, figure out what you can control and then try to release the rest. I make a big brain-dump list where I write down everything that I have to do that comes to mind. Then I assign it a priority level and deadline. It takes something big and overwhelming (life) and breaks it into manageable chunks. Got a big deadline that you’re stressed out about? Grab a calendar, mark out a guideline of what needs to be accomplished by when to get the job done. Often times just getting things off your brain and onto paper helps reduce some of the load.
Diet - What you eat matters. Caffeine, sugar, anything artificial: these will only send your body deeper into the stress cycle. It’s time to rethink what you consider to be a comfort food. Simple carbs, sugary and highly processed foods aren't going to be your friend here, as much as you may want them to be. When you’re feeling stressed, sip on some chamomile tea and have some dark chocolate. It must be dark! Milk chocolate doesn't contain the same polyphenols and flavonols that dark chocolate does. Other feel-good foods include cashews, berries, avocados, garlic, asparagus, oatmeal, green tea, oranges, and walnuts.
Reach out - Not going it alone is important. Talk to a friend, your cat, a professional. Just having someone to talk to, to have a connection with, will decrease your feelings of stress. In times of high stress, don’t neglect your relationships. Being around loved ones will help you relax and think clearer later.
Know your triggers - I know making left turns while driving super stresses me out. I get a little anxious as a passenger even! So, I when I’m driving, I keep a mental note of where the left turns I need to make are and where there are stop lights to make it easier. This simple thing reduces my daily stress level. Basically, if you know something is going to stress you out, avoid it. I know that this doesn’t apply to all situations, but do what you can when you can. A little step is still a step.
Adjustment - getting adjusted allows the parasympathetic nervous system to relax. This signals to your body it is safe to come out of the fight or flight and into rest. Your body can get stuck with additional pressure on your nerves and an adjustment will remove that pressure and your body will start to remember how it’s supposed to feel.