What Stress Can Do to Your Body
Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines stress as “a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation.”
The “tension” caused by stress can serve a purpose. At times, our body needs a certain amount of tension to help us meet goals, solve problems, adapt to challenges, and help us to be resilient.
A healthy stress response can also protect us from danger, and in some instances, be life-saving!
However, as the definition suggests, stress “may be a factor in disease causation.” In fact, research cited by the American Institute of Stress estimates 75-90% of all primary care doctor visits are for stress-related causes.
So why is stress causing so many problems?
Let’s look at what stress does to your body.
Short-Term Effects of Stress
Your body has a built-in fight or flight stress response that’s truly remarkable.
Imagine a scenario where you encounter a threat. Almost instantaneously, your hypothalamus at the base of your brain sends an alert signal out to your body. A combination of neural and hormonal signals direct your adrenal glands to release a surge of hormones, which includes adrenaline and cortisol. The adrenaline increases your heart rate and blood pressure and provides you with a boost of energy.
In a flash, you react.
Cortisol, your body’s primary stress hormone, then immediately releases glucose into your bloodstream, and boosts your brain’s use of glucose and signal substances to be on the ready for tissue repair.
Then it shifts your body to survival mode, reducing nonessential functions – altering immune responses while slowing the digestive and reproductive systems and growth processes.
Next, your body’s natural alarm response communicates with the area of your mind that manages mood, motivation, and fear. Your singular focus becomes survival and safety.
Once the threat has passed, hormone levels subside and your body responds by normalizing heart rate and blood pressure. Soon, the body resumes regular functioning.
Long-Term Effects of Stress
Unfortunately, modern living is chock-full of stressors, and many over-doers don’t take much-needed downtime to rejuvenate.
When you deal with multiple stressors every day, you may experience chronic stress. When this occurs, your stress response system never turns off and your body becomes overexposed to cortisol and other stress hormones. This can impact most of your body’s processes and cause a host of problems over time.
Prolonged stress can lead to:
- Anxious feelings
- Low mood
- Compromised memory and concentration
- Greater risk of heart and blood pressure issues
- Fertility problems
- Weakened immune system
- Digestive issues
- Weight gain/loss
Learning to keep stress levels in check is an essential part of healthy living. While the term “stress reduction” may not be glamorous, the good news is many activities that reduce stress are enjoyable, and can even enhance your quality of life.
7 Ways to Manage Stress So You Can Enjoy Your Life
Here are 8 research-backed, stress-reducing ideas to get you started:
1. Build a healthy support network. We all need encouraging and trustworthy people we can rely on during difficult times. Having just a few good friends and confidants can make a world of difference.
2. Spend time in nature. Visiting natural environments can be beneficial in reducing both physical and psychological stress levels. Start with a simple walk in the park or stroll along the beach.
3. Practice yoga. Don’t worry, you need not be overly bendy. There are plenty of yoga classes available in most communities for all ages and skill levels.
4. Get regular massages. Depending on your budget, treat yourself to a 20-minute chair massage or a full-body massage.
5. Meditate. Not all meditation is difficult. There are many options out there. Try one that works for you and do it on a consistent basis.
6. Deep breathing. A simple exercise to reduce stress is to breathe in for 8 seconds; hold it for 8 seconds; breathe out for 8 seconds, and then hold it for 8 seconds. Repeat 4 times. Try it. You’ll feel the difference right away.
7. Regular physical exercise. The stress-reducing effects of exercise are well-documented. Pick up a new sport, dance, go for a run, walk, or bike ride. Whatever activity you enjoy, do it regularly.
It’s important to make sure your stress-reducing activities don’t cause you more stress. Have fun with it, because laughing is also proven to reduce stress!
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I disagree with the breathing exercise. I have NEVER been coached to HOLD my breath for as long as the inhale or exhale while doing this type of exercise. (Not in Yoga, Tai Chi, Qi Gong or by my psychologist.) That will increase your anxiety and cortisol levels not lower it. My opinion.