I think Stress is important to talk about because research shows it is one of the biggest killers. The effect of prolonged stress on our bodies is serious. While stress is an entirely natural response that helps humans re-act quickly to life-threatening situations, it is not meant to be “switched on” or in the “red-zone” for extended periods.
Stress used to be physical (run fast from the tiger yada yada). Now it is primarily psychological – work deadlines, strained finances, unrealistic expectations, weaker community relationships, struggles in close relationships, health or a lack of sleep – but the perception of stress still manifests physically. And when our stress switch gets jammed “on” in the red zone the physical impact is great.
Stress can affect our psychological and emotional well-being, our musculoskeletal system, our respiratory system, and our cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, nervous and reproductive systems.
Nervous system (Psychological and emotional level)
Chronic stress, experiencing stressors over a prolonged period of time, can result in a long-term drain on the body.
The nervous system activates a physical response that includes the release of hormones, slows metabolism, dilates blood vessels, speeds up the heart and breath and increases blood sugar for energy.
“It’s not so much what chronic stress does to the nervous system, but what continuous activation of the nervous system does to other bodily systems that become problematic.” (American Psychological Association)
When we feel stress our muscles automatically tense preparing us for flight. When they are chronically tensed, we are more likely to suffer tension headaches or migraines and are at greater risk of a range of musculoskeletal disorders
Respiratory and cardiovascular systems
Interestingly (and I say interestingly because it seems an unlikely connection), acute stress can bring on an asthma attack. It can also increase the likelihood of heart problems. “The consistent and ongoing increase in heart rate, and the elevated levels of stress hormones and of blood pressure, can take a toll on the body,” explain the American Psychological Association (APA). “This long-term ongoing stress can increase the risk for hypertension, heart attack or stroke.”
“When cortisol and epinephrine are released, the liver produces more glucose, a blood sugar that would give you the energy for ‘fight or flight’ in an emergency,” the APA said. This spike, if not utilized or reabsorbed can increase the risk of diabetes.
The fight or flight response stops or slows our digestion as our energy diverts to tackle whatever “threat” is causing us stress. “The digestive process may slow or be temporarily disrupted, causing abdominal pain and other symptoms of functional gastrointestinal disorders,” explained Harvard Medical School. It also increases the likelihood of developing a gastrointestinal disorder in the long run.
The release of stress hormones over extended periods affects testosterone and sperm production in men, menstruation in women and sex drive in men and women.
What can we do about it?
Many stressors can, if not be removed, be managed to minimize their impact, alleviating physical, psychological and emotional symptoms.
- Notice the physical symptoms by being connected with and feeling our bodies (grinding teeth, tensing shoulders, holding the breath) and become aware of what triggers stress in you. This can help you to prepare, practice staying calm or avoid the trigger.
- Having predictable rhythms and routines in your day, or over a week, can be very calming and reassuring, and can help you to manage your stress, they say, suggesting regular times for exercise, eating, going to bed, relaxation and jobs.
- Spending time with people you care about, and who care about you, is an important part of managing ongoing stress in your life.
- Look after your health by eating fresh wholefoods, exercising, pursuing activities that provide joy or a sense of calm and avoiding drugs or alcohol as crutches.
- Notice negative self-talk. Instead practice soothing, calming self-talk (“I’m coping well given what’s on my plate”, or “calm down”, or “breathe easy”) and put things in perspective (“in the scheme of things this doesn’t matter so much”).
- Practice relaxation to settle the nervous system. This might include the simple act of mindful breathing, yoga, meditation, and gardening, reading a book, listening to music or some soothing activity that gives you a sense of pleasure.
Finally, when you find you are not coping, seek help from a psychotherapist or psychologist who uses body-mind oriented processes to help alleviate the stress symptoms. Addressing emotional and psychological symptoms with body-mind techniques in traditional talking therapy will help you discover the resources you can draw on to help you regulate and control nervous system activation and arousal caused by stress.