Getting Better at Stress
Do you have an endless list of things to do and not enough time available? Are you studying for a test but started a bit too late? Stress is a feeling we all experience when we are challenged or overwhelmed. Stress is a lot more than just an emotion; it can actually cause several physical responses that have effects on your entire body including the musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, nervous, and reproductive systems.
The beneficial sides of stress
Stress causes a primitive flight or fight response which can be crucial for survival. Imagine you are suddenly in a life-threatening situation and your only chance to survive is to run away as fast as you can. Immediately, your adrenal gland releases the stress hormones adrenaline and norepinephrine. In addition, the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenaline axis (HPA-axis) in our brain is activated and releases cortisol. As these hormones travel through your body, they prime it for instant action. The adrenaline causes your heart to beat faster and raises your blood pressure. Your respiration rate increases and there will be more oxygen available to the muscles. This boosts your performance and you will be able to run faster and longer. This can be handy for a burst of extra energy when you are running for your life when you are playing sports or have to speak in public. As a bonus, stress hormones also have positive effects on the immune system and help to fight invaders, and help with healing after injury.
The negative effects of chronic stress
In the short term, stress can be advantageous, but when activated too often or too long stress can have serious effects on our body. Are you sleeping restlessly, feeling irritable or moody, forgetting little things, and feeling overwhelmed and isolated? Unfortunately, these are common effects of chronic stress.
The ‘fight or flight’ or sympathetic system is balanced by the ‘rest and digest’ or parasympathetic system. If stress causes the ‘fight or flight’ system to be dominant, it causes your opposite ‘rest and digest’ system to be suppressed.
Chronic stress increases levels of adrenaline and norepinephrine and can cause hypertension. Increased cortisol levels can cause the inner lining of blood vessels to not function normally. This triggers the process of cholesterol plaques to build up in your arteries and increase your chances of a heart attack or stroke.
When chronic stress suppresses the parasympathetic nervous system or ‘rest and digest’ system it has an effect on the intestinal nervous system. This link between the brain and gut can disturb the natural rhythmic contractions that move food through your gut, leading to irritable bowel syndrome, heartburn, and increased gut sensitivity. Stress can change the composition and function of your gut bacteria which may affect your digestive and overall health.
Cortisol can increase your appetite, causing you to crave comfort food. High levels of cortisol can also cause you to put on those extra calories as visceral or deep belly fat. This type of fat doesn’t just make it harder to button your pants, it’s the tissue that actively releases hormones and immune system chemicals called cytokines that can increase your risk of developing chronic diseases such as insulin resistance and heart disease.
Chronic stress can also have negative effects on the immune system, making you more susceptible to infection and slow the rate you heal. Chronic stress has even more ways it can sabotage your health including hair loss, headaches, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, irritability, and increased muscle tension. When muscles are prepared for action during the ‘fight or flight’ response the muscle tension increases. Often this contributes to common presentations such as muscle pain, tension headaches, neck and back pain.
How to deal better with stress
Your life will most likely regularly be filled with stressful situations, but what matters to your brain and entire body is how you respond to that stress. Unsurprisingly, scientists have found that people who experienced a lot of stress in the last year have an increased risk of dying. They also asked those people if they believe that stress is harmful to their health. The increased risk of dying was only true for the people who also believed that stress was harmful to their health! People who experienced a lot of stress but did not view stress as harmful were no more likely to die. In fact, they had the lowest risk of dying from anyone in the study, including people with lower stress levels.
When you change your mind about stress, you can change your body’s response to stress. Rethink your stress response as helpful. If you can view those situations as challenges that you can control and master rather than as threats that are insurmountable, you will perform better in the short run and stay healthy in the long run. That pounding heart is preparing you for action! If you’re breathing faster, it’s a great way to get more oxygen to your brain! If you view your stress response as helpful, you are more likely to feel less anxious, stressed out, more confident. Even better; the actual physical stress response changes: the cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine levels drop.
If the stressful event has already taken place, there are still many ways to reverse what stress hormones do to your stressed body and brain. The most powerful weapons are exercise and meditation, which involves breathing deeply and being aware and focussed on your surroundings. It is also important to try to eat healthily and practice good sleep hygiene. Your memory will improve, your muscles will feel more relaxed, you’ll have a better quality of sleep, and are likely to feel less irritable.
So don’t feel defeated by the pressures of daily life. Get in control of your stress before it takes control of you. How you think about stress matters and hopefully what you have just learned about stress will help you be better at stress!