How Stress Affects Your Body
We all wear many hats in our busy lives. Whether you work or stay home, have children or don’t, own a business or work for someone else, if you’re human, you have stress. Period. It’s an unavoidable part of life. And while you may feel the emotional weight of all that stress, the anxiety, depression, and negative thoughts most often associated with it, stress can also take a huge toll on your body.
When you’re stressed, your central nervous system (CNS) goes into what is often referred to as the “fight or flight” response. Your body releases adrenaline and cortisol, your eyes dilate, your heart beats faster and your blood pressure increases, your muscles tense and your digestion stops to allow blood to be redistributed to those muscles needed to fight or run for your life. When the perceived threat is gone the CNS will usually act to ease the mind and body, a state often referred to as “rest and digest” because the body calms and functions return to normal. However, chronic, or long-term stress means that signal may not be sent for quite some time, so your body is staying in that state of stress for far too long.
Maybe you really don’t like your job, and the minute you wake up in the morning you’re already dreading the work day. As you get yourself ready and out the door, the impending day is hanging over you like a dark cloud. Then traffic is rough and you’re on high alert to avoid an accident. Then your day is spent dealing with difficult coworkers, bosses, or customers. When the work day finally ends, you’re exhausted. Not just because of a long day, but because your body has been in this hyper-attentive, stressed state since you opened your eyes.
Whatever your stress looks like, the physiological toll of it can be immense. The associated muscular tension can lead to widespread pain, headaches, and even make you more prone to injury. The regular increases in blood pressure can put strain on your heart and blood vessels leading to an increased risk of hypertension and even heart attack and stroke. The changes in digestion that occur during this fight or flight response can lead to nausea, constipation, acid reflux, and even increase your risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes.
Clearly the effects stress has on your body go deeper than the eyes can see. If you truly want to tackle this worthy opponent, you need to take it one step at a time and realize different techniques work for different people, so take the time to figure out what works best for you. Here’s a few tips to get you started:
Exercise & Movement - When your body gets moving and your blood gets pumping, it releases all kinds of feel-good hormones that ease mental and physiological stress. You don’t have to hit the gym for two hours to get the benefit. Even just a brief walk or a few minutes of stretching can make a big difference for your mind and body.
Yoga - Don’t worry, you don’t have to have the perfect poses to get the benefits of yoga. The slow, controlled movements and breathing exercises will help you to relax and focus your mind which will help reduce stress levels.
Meditation - You don’t need to be a master of mindfulness to meditate or to see the benefits of it. Whether you take just 2 minutes or an entire hour is up to you. Regardless, taking the time to close your eyes, breathe slowly, and allow your mind to focus on something other than the things you usually stress about, will ease a lot of that mental and physical stress.
Journal - Journaling has been shown over and over again to be highly beneficial in combating stress. Whether you're unable to speak your mind, or you just feel overwhelmed, getting it all out in a journal of some sort can allow you to take control of those stressful thoughts and move forward.
Do something for you - As the saying goes, you can’t pour from an empty cup. You have to take care of yourself, not just others. That may be 10 minutes a day or an hour or two every week. Whatever you can fit into your schedule, start taking some time to devote solely to something you enjoy. Go for a walk, read a book, dance around to your favorite music, or get a massage!
While life is inevitably stressful, you don’t have to let that stress take control of your life or lead you to some mental or physical issues. You only get one body in this life. Take care of it!