Stressed out? Who isn't? It seems now days everyone is under a tremendous amount of stress. We accept it, deal with it (sort of), and just keep moving forward with little regard toward the stress and the impact it has on our bodies and our health.
It seems being stressed out has become almost a badge of honor - we certainly must be important, busy, or hard-working to be under so much stress. But are we?
Stress is a necessary biological response to a threat. In the short-term, stress can have a positive impact on our health. Our bodies are well-designed to deal with short-term stress. Our fight or flight system kicks in and we are ready for action. Our immune system becomes a powerful force to fight infection or heal a wound. We become more alert and energized as adrenaline and cortisol are released into our bodies to help us deal with whatever is threatening our well-being.
Once the threatening situation passes, our body returns to its natural state of homeostasis; our heart rate and respiration return to normal, our muscles relax, and stress hormones are cleared from our body.
The problems arise when we are faced with long-term, or chronic, stress. A stressful job situation, chronic health conditions, major life changes, and difficult relationships are just a few of the many difficulties we face that may impact us over a long duration of time. These situations will trigger our fight or flight response yet, because they are long-lasting, our bodies do not have the opportunity to return to its preferred state.
Under long-term stress, we may experience a continual release of cortisol, constant muscle tension, shallow and rapid breathing, and an elevated resting heart rate. Our respiratory system, immune system, circulatory system, and digestive system (actually all of our body systems) are working overtime.
Eventually these systems become overtaxed and inefficient. Our immune system might go into overdrive and begin attacking everything, potentially triggering an autoimmune disease. Our muscles never get time to truly relax and we may experience injuries, pain, or migraines as a result. Our digestive system might continually produce stomach acid or it may become sluggish in an effort to save energy.
Though our bodies are well designed to deal with short-term stress, it responds negatively to long-term stress and our health suffers.
Certainly stress impacts our mood, but it also impacts our health in many ways including:
May cause insomnia or disrupted sleep cycle
Can exacerbate skin problems
May cause digestive issues
Constant muscle tension can lead to headaches, migraines
Disrupts hormone regulation
May trigger anxiety and depression
Can impair memory and ability to concentrate
Reduces the body's ability to regulate inflammation
Unfortunately, in many instances we cannot remove the situations that are causing stress in our lives. The uncertainty that comes with rumored downsizing at your job, the strain of caring for a loved one battling a disease, or a divorce are things that you may not be able to change. You can, however, learn to control the impact stress can have on your health. Yes, chronic stress taxes our health, but there are a few things you can do to manage your stress and improve your body's ability to stay healthy.
Brain dump - chronic stress can result in a seemingly endless number of thoughts in your head. You become overwhelmed by all of the things you must do and all of the things that could happen. Grab a notebook and a pen and write down everything. Moving your thoughts to paper can help clear your mind and settle your body.
Meditation - this is big right now, but still many remain skeptical. Meditation does not have to mean chanting and alters; consider it a time out for your brain. Sit in a relaxed position and just let your mind be free. As thoughts come into your head, acknowledge them and let them move on. Notice your breaths and begin to deepen the inhalation and exhalation into a pattern that is comfortable for you. Don't force your breaths, but try to bring them to a deep and even pace. Continue acknowledging and releasing any thoughts that pop up while maintaining a focus on your breaths for a few minutes. This might be all you need to calm your mind and body.
Habitual practice can help you sit for a longer period of time and has been shown to promote self-awareness, improve attention, and can positively impact emotional health. However, even short meditation sessions can reduce stress and anxiety, leaving you feeling energized and refreshed.
Exercise - helps to clear cortisol and release muscle tension. For some, yoga, tai chi, or a walk outside eases tension and relaxes the brain and body. Others prefer something more intense such as a long run or a sweaty session of strength training. Listen to your body to determine what is best for you. If your body seems to be giving you mixed signals, start with a walk or an easy jog and go from there. You may find that is plenty or you may discover that you are needing something a bit more intense. Safety is key for injury prevention - don't overdo it. Your mind may be telling you to run faster, lift heavier, or work harder, but your body could pay the price.
Diet - poor food choices can increase stress, as well as your waist line. Limit sugars, foods that are difficult to digest, and unhealthy fats. Focus on fruits and vegetables that are high in antioxidants to help combat inflammation, vitamins to protect the immune system, and fiber to keep your digestive system running smoothly. Omega 3 fatty acids found in fish have been shown to decrease anxiety and inflammation, helping to combat some of the side effects of chronic stress.
Sleep - lack of sleep leads to stress which can cause lack of sleep and this cycle often seems never-ending. Maintaining a regular sleep schedule is important as it helps maintain your circadian rhythm and melatonin production. To get back to a regular sleep pattern begin by developing a calming pre-bedtime ritual such as a light read, aromatherapy, journaling, and consuming a small snack if needed. Keep the lights low and maybe play some soft music for the hour prior to your bedtime. These calming rituals will help your mind shift from day-time activity to a more relaxed state and prepare for sleep.
Give yourself a time out - take some time to enjoy a hobby, an outing with friends, or a weekend activity with family to add some joy to your week. Something as simple as a change of scenery or routine might be enough to break the stress cycle, even if its only temporary. This break may give you the chance to understand your stressors differently and develop a better means to deal with them. Similar to vacation, getting away for a while gives you time for creativity, self-discovery, and the chance to reconnect with what is truly important.
Chronic stress can be quite taxing on your body and your health. Take charge of your health and spend the time to acknowledge your stress and learn how you can manage it.
Better Health, Better Life, Better You!
Thanks for reading. Have you discovered a way to manage your stress? I would love to hear about it and share more ideas with my reader. Please leave a comment in the comment box.
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