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Stress and the Body

  • Chronic stress can weaken your immune system and resiliency.

  • What happens when fight-or-flight stress hormones enter your bloodstream on a long-term basis.

  • We've all been under extraordinary stress at some point in our lives.

  • Chronic stress can wreak havoc on both your mental and physical health. It wears down your body’s natural defenses, leaving you exhausted and exposed to illness

Here is a perspective on the impact of stress on your body, your immunity and your overall resilience -- and ways you can help manage it.

That includes recognizing and dealing with the impact on our physical, mental and emotional health from living through the seemingly endless ups and downs.

Fight or flight?

Stress, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is:

"1. A state of mental tension and worry caused by problems in your life, work, etc.; 2. Something that causes strong feelings of worry or anxiety."

As a human in today's society of excessive stress and fast moving craziness, I happen to be intimately acquainted with the hormones that can cause stress-related symptoms. Stress-related symptoms are our body's responses that produce changes you can feel physically, such as a racing heart, tremors, and the stomach-turning feeling of dread.

The best-known example of rapid stress hormone release is referred to as the “fight or flight” reaction.

This happens when you feel threatened internally or externally. In this scenario, the stress response causes your body to release stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline (also known as epinephrine), into the bloodstream. These hormones were helpful when humans lived in caves; those with the best fight or flight responses were able to fend off predators and survive to pass on their genes.

When released, rapid stress hormones feed every cell in the body, which in turn fuel the brain and muscles to increase alertness, concentration, and strength. They increase heart rate and blood pressure for the rapid response needed to free you from danger.

After you’ve dealt with the short-term stress, these hormones leave as quickly as they came, and we return to our normal state. But in some cases, these hormones do not subside and hang around much longer than necessary. Our bodies and minds do not have time to recover.

How stress threatens your physical and mental health

Chronic stress and stress hormones can bring on mental and physical diseases and affect every part of our body. There are many signs and effects of excessive stress on the body, including:

  • Headaches

  • Body aches

  • Stomach pains and digestive problems

  • Increased or decreased appetite

  • High blood pressure

  • High sugar levels

  • Insomnia (trouble sleeping at night) or too much sleeping

  • Depression

  • Anxiety

  • Heart trouble and heart attack

  • Stroke

  • Weakened immune system (especially relevant now)

  • Weight gain

  • Irregular periods

  • Decreased libido (sex drive)

Different types of stress

Not all stress is the same. Acute stress is short-term while chronic stress is long-term.

Examples of acute stress would be any stress you suffer from for a short period of time -- like a car cutting you off on the freeway, an argument with your spouse, or a scary noise outside your home. But if you're a bus driver and you get stuck in numerous traffic jams every day, you're in a bad relationship and you argue with your spouse constantly, you work for a toxic boss or you live in a high-crime neighborhood where break-ins are relatively common, your stress may be chronic.

Your body is well designed to recover quickly from short-term stress. Your blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate and levels of muscle tension may skyrocket for a short while. If you're young (and/or) healthy and in good shape, these markers of stress quickly return to their normal levels. Our bodies aren’t as good at handling chronic stress, however. Over time, chronic stress gradually increases your resting heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate and levels of muscle tension so the body has to work even harder when it's at rest to keep you functioning normally.

A new time, a new approach to your health

We are all in the same boat, we are all facing the same stressors, perhaps at different times in our lives and at different levels.

I realize we cannot control the outside forces, but we can control our response to the outside forces and how we allow it to affect our health. So, look internally. Aim to make small but tangible changes in our lifestyles. These small changes can make incremental improvements in overall health.

Now, we don’t just talk about sugar or blood pressure. Instead, we’ll talk about family, worries and long-term health goals. Together, we’ll use this time as a springboard to a healthier lifestyle.

Let's also talk about ways to deal with the stress. Yoga and meditation are wonderful, evidence-based tools that can help manage stress and anxiety. Regular practice helps tame our minds so we can look inward to control our body’s responses to stress. Amazingly, we can teach our bodies to tame some of the hormones that are responsible for chronic stress.

Take control of stress levels

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to control your stress levels and make healthy choices – even more than yoga and meditation. Regular, moderate exercise improves thought processes and mood. Other strategies include getting a good night’s sleep.

Humans are also social animals and being isolated has become a stressor to many. Seek emotional support from family and friends. You can also reduce the long-term effects of chronic stress by eating a healthy diet, most commonly recommended are the Mediterranean, DASH, and plant-based diets. Avoid smoking and drinking too much alcohol as it can put additional stress on your organs.

And finally, find something to laugh about every day—watch comedies, tell silly jokes or find silly baby animal videos on social media. Laughter releases the same endorphins as exercise, lowers your cortisol levels and helps improve your immune system.

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