You wake up to a raging alarm clock. When reaching over to turn it off, you realize you have hit the snooze button three times in a semi-conscious haze. Running late for work, you jump out of bed, skip breakfast, and run out the front door.
How many of us can relate to the above scenario? According to a 2012 survey by the American Psychological Association and the American Institute of Stress, 75% of people regularly experience both physical and psychological symptoms of stress. Sadly, over 50% of participants who responded to the research questionnaire stated that stress has caused them to fight with people close to them. The top seven stressors in the U.S. are job pressure, money, health, relationships, poor nutrition, media overload, and sleep deprivation.
Most of us have heard the old saying, “Manage your stress or your stress will manage you”. But do we really know what that statement means? How does stress affect the body?
What is stress?
The dictionary definition of stress is “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances”. Stress is commonly divided into two categories – eustress and distress. Eustress is a positive or function enhancing stimulus, e.g. exercise, enjoying a suspenseful movie, riding roller coasters, etc. Distress is considered the negative stress that can causes frustration or anxiety.
Stress also differs according to length of time. An acute stress is a temporary or one time event – a bad grade at school, a traffic jam, or a negative job evaluation. Chronic stress is often a low-grade stimulus that occurs frequently or over a long period of time. Examples include relationship difficulties, financial constraints, being too busy, job stressors, negative self-talk, pessimism, unrealistic expectations, etc. Chronic stress is often the stimulus that causes health concerns.
How does stress affect the body?
When you perceive a threat, your nervous system responds by releasing a rush of hormones from the adrenal glands. These hormones (including cortisol and norepinephrine) prepare the body for action. As a result, your heart beats up to five times faster, your muscles contract and tighten, your blood pressure rises, your breathing accelerates, and your senses heighten. Your body is prepared to increase strength and stamina, quicken your reaction time and enhance your focus to deal with the perceived threat.
As a result of these physical changes, several systems in the body experience adverse effects.
Gastrointestinal system. The stress hormones slow the release of stomach acid and interfere with how well the stomach empties. This can cause stomachaches or ulcers. Downstream in the large intestines, the same stress hormones affects how well nutrients are absorbed and how quickly food moves through the bowels. This can cause diarrhea or constipation.
Cardiovascular system. Cortisol increases the heart rate and blood pressure. If sustained for long periods of time, this can increase inflammation and increase your risk of a heart attack or stroke. Stress is linked to a 27% increase in risk of a heart attack; the same cardiovascular affect as smoking 5 cigarettes daily.
Immune system. The hormonal stress response releases pro-inflammatory cytokines. It creates an imbalance within the immune system, which makes immune cells slower and less efficient at responding to a foreign invader or injury.
Reproductive system. Stress hormones cause a decrease in estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone and a potential increase of prolactin. This leads to diminished libido, painful irregular menstrual cycles, disrupted ovulation, and decreased fertility.
Thyroid. Elevated cortisol levels inhibit thyroid hormone production. Other stress hormones can cause a diminished conversion of T4 thyroid hormone to the active T3 form.
Mental health. Constant stress creates a continual state of tension and anxiety. Over time, this can lead to headaches, panic attacks, depression, or other conditions. Chronically elevated stress hormones interfere with short-term memory and can cause foggy thinking. Due to a heightened state of arousal and difficulty relaxing in the evening, sleep disturbances are common.
Weight. Increased levels of cortisol stimulate fat and carbohydrate cravings; if indulged this can cause weight gain. Cortisol supports abdominal weight gain, which is linked to higher risk of heart disease and diabetes.
What are long-term consequences of stress?
Long-term health consequences are usually mild at first: chronic headaches, increased susceptibility to illness, fatigue, sleep disturbances. But over time, stress can wreak havoc on the body. It can lead to:
Mental health issues like depression and anxiety
- Metabolic conditions like obesity, diabetes, and thyroid problems
- Immunological conditions such as autoimmune diseases and increased susceptibility to cancers
- Inflammatory issues like heart disease, skin conditions, tooth and gum disease, ulcers and digestive concerns
- Other health issues such as hair loss, pain, and sexual dysfunction
How do I manage stress?
It’s not just the stress, but how you react to it that determines how much it affects the body. There are an unlimited number of ways to manage your reaction to stress and to reduce the effects of stress.
Tension reducing techniques
- Yoga – any pose is helpful, you do not need to attend a full class for benefits
- Meditation – this can be focusing on a positive phrase or practicing a spiritual journey
- Breathing exercises – breathe in for a count of four, hold for a count of four, breathe out for a count of four (you can choose any length of time for this)
- Positive imagery – think of images that bring you happiness, calmness, or relaxation
- Progressive muscle relaxation – beginning at the feet and working toward the head, focus on each region of the body and release any tension or muscle contraction in the area
- Journaling – write down all of the stressful aspects of your day followed by positive things in your life
- Organization – create lists of tasks that must be accomplished today, clean and organize your work environment for maximal work efficacy, check your calendar daily and prioritize tasks according to upcoming events
- Time management – delegate specified amounts of time for each tasks, schedule breaks for yourself between tasks, perform similar tasks in sequence
- Relationship skills – practice communicating truthfully and kindly, express your needs rather than assume the other person should know, cultivate patience and give the other person the benefit of the doubt that they are not purposely trying to make the situation more difficult
Healthy lifestyle choices
- Exercise – take a walk every night after dinner, or schedule an exercise date with a friend at the gym
- Take breaks – at work and at home; schedule self-care time even if it is to take a nap
- Don’t be afraid to take a half-day off of work every once in a while
- Refrain from answering work emails and phone calls at home unless it is an emergency
- Take vacations – whether it is a long vacation or a mini weekend camping trip, time away from your normal environment is helpful
- Cultivate a strong supportive network of friends and family
Talk to Your Doctor
It is estimated that as much as 75-90% of doctor visits are for symptoms related to stress. Health care professionals can utilize massage, acupuncture, or herbal remedies to help you manage stress. Talk to your doctor if you feel your stress is adversely affecting your health and life; he or she can suggest solutions or referrals to other sources of help based on your unique situation.
The American Institute of Stress
By Jamie Fields NCNM Naturopathic Medicine Program
Edited by Dr Elise Schroeder