April is Stress Awareness Month. While most of us are frequently aware of our own stress in one way or another, we probably don’t know just how much it’s affecting us.
Stress can be a major health problem. It worsens your mental health, but it also puts a serious strain on your body, too.
We tend to focus on medical interventions for physical problems, but there are many ways to combat stress—and its complications—outside of a doctor’s office.
What is Stress?
Stress happens when your mind and your body attempt to deal with perceived threats (real or not). Stress puts your brain and body into defensive, self-preservation, “fight-or-flight” problem-solving mode—whether it’s a life-threatening situation or something that affects our mental wellbeing.
Stress can occur whether we have power over a situation or not.
How Stress Affects Your Body
Even though much of today’s stress deals with psychological and emotional problems, your body still responds as though every stressor is a physical threat. So it doesn’t matter if you’re stressed about family relationships, financial woes, future plans or an argument you just had with a stranger. Your body responds the same way: Like you’re about to be attacked by a saber-toothed tiger.
Under stress, your body releases hormones like adrenaline/epinephrine (to prepare your heart and lungs for intense physical activity) and cortisol (to supply glucose fuel for that activity). At the same time, these hormones take resources away from “non-essential” functions in the moment, like your digestive and immune systems.
This response is great in the moment you need to escape a saber-toothed tiger.
But when your body continues to experience these responses often, and/or for prolonged periods of time, stress wears out some parts of your body while neglecting others. You’re exhausted and unbalanced from preparing to run or fight all the time.
The Cortisol Conundrum
Cortisol is an especially problematic “stress hormone,” because it affects our blood sugar levels, causing spikes that can promote weight gain and insulin intolerance. And of course, these health issues only serve to cause more stress, which produces more cortisol, and so on.
What Bodily Functions are Affected by Stress?
- Bones and muscles
- Heart and blood vessels
- Digestive tract from esophagus to stomach to bowels
- Immune system
- Reproductive systems, including sexual desire
How to Reduce Your Stress Response
While our body will continue to respond to modern-day stressors as though we’re being attacked by prehistoric animals, there are still things we can do to reduce our stress response on a day-to-day and moment-to-moment basis.
Stress management often involves a combination of improving your overall health (through diet and sleep), purposefully addressing some stressors that are within your control (cleaning and organizing), and practicing disciplines can actually turn off your stress responses (like meditation, yoga and exercise).
Improve your health: Poor nutrition, lack of sleep, and a sedentary lifestyle all cause your body to stress about its own wellbeing.
Actively address minor stressors one at a time: Some minor stressors in your everyday surroundings might be cranking up your stress levels. Focus on small problems with quick, manageable solutions. Try organizing your desk or cleaning your car, or just put away an item that’s out of place.
Practice stress management disciplines: Yoga, meditation and massages train your body and mind to turn down the stress response and focus on wellness in the moment. With practice, these stress-reducing disciplines can be more easily utilized throughout your day to keep your stress levels from spiking.
Exercise: Physical activity is like health management and meditation rolled up into one. It promotes physical and mental responses to counteract stress, while also encouraging long-term stress-reducing health benefits.
Don’t underestimate the importance of a support system: Humans are social animals, and isolation stresses us out. Rely on your social network and/or a professional therapist to get you outside of your stressed-out head.
The Stress-Management Bottom Line
The problem with stress is that it feeds on itself. However, reducing stress can have a snowball effect, too. Less stress leads to better sleep (for example), which leads to even less stress.
An organized desk leads to easier productivity, which allows you check even more tasks off your list.
A long walk leads to less stress, which leads to more energy for another walk tomorrow.
Reducing stress, even by a little bit, makes more stress-reduction possible. Find one small moment to get it started, and more moments will arise. You’re doing fine.