You’ve heard the adage before: “manage your stress or your stress will manage you.” As it turns out, this is no wives tale. Perhaps the most shocking fact about stress is that it affects your body systemically, and not just in one area. This stress can originate from anywhere and, at a basic level, is your body’s reaction to situations that can be perceived as potentially dangerous.
Stress can take a serious toll on one’s physical and emotional health. Even more so, chronic stress can lead to more serious and potentially life-threatening health conditions. The good news is there are ways to avoid the triggers that cause you stress.
Our body responds to stress by altering the secretions of certain hormones and chemicals. A majority of these secretions originate from the adrenal gland, a small gland that is situated on top of the kidneys and releases hormones that: control the “fight or flight” response, maintain metabolic processes (i.e. blood sugar levels), regulate the balance between salt and water, maintain pregnancy and finally, initiate and control sexual maturation. In moderation, these hormones can help save your life, but for prolonged periods of time, they can have seriously detrimental effects.
Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, inhibits functions that are a detriment to the “fight or flight” response. Specifically, it alters the immune system response and suppresses the digestive tract, reproductive system and growth processes. As you can imagine, altering the immune system can leave you more susceptible to illness and suppressing the digestive tract can leave you feeling constipated and ill. Furthermore, cortisol increases the levels of glucose in your blood and enhances the brain’s use of glucose, likely leaving you craving unhealthy, fatty carbohydrates. In combination, these effects can lead to: heart disease, sleep problems, digestive problems, depression, obesity, memory impairment and worsening of skin problems. Studies have shown that high levels of cortisol are associated with an increase in risk of death from cardiovascular disease.
Another stress hormone is adrenaline (aka epinephrine) and is chiefly associated with the “fight or flight” response. After your body internalizes a perceived threat, adrenaline is released into the bloodstream, resulting in an increase in heart rate, blood pressure and energy supplies. In an attempt to supply your muscles and brain with blood, adrenaline also cuts off the blood supply to the skin. For prolonged periods of time, this can manifest as hair loss or acne. Furthermore, because of its relaxation effect on smooth muscles, epinephrine allows you to breathe more intensely, as the lungs contain smooth muscle.
Aldosterone and the sex hormones, to a lesser extent, are also affected by stress. Aldosterone stimulates water and salt reabsorption by the kidneys, which, in excess, can result in increased blood pressure and edema. Stress hormones can inhibit the sex hormone gonadotropin releasing hormone, which results in a reduction in sperm count, ovulation and sexual desire. In women, stress leads to a decrease in estrogen and progesterone production and an increase in cortisol levels.
So what are you to do if the stresses you face cannot be eliminated completely? Try to minimize them whenever possible. At work, know when to say “no” to new projects or responsibilities; by the same token, know when to delegate responsibilities to others. Take a break every hour, especially when doing intense tasks. Utilize the time you’re given for lunch. Don’t be afraid to take a personal day (or a half-day) every so often. As far as lifestyle remedies, exercise is the best way to reduce stress and cortisol levels. This is especially attractive now that summer is upon us and the warm weather beckons us outdoors. Refrain from answering your emails and phones when it’s not an emergency. Taking vacations, going for spa treatments or practicing relaxation techniques can also help you. Consuming a healthy diet and refraining from smoking, drinking alcohol or taking recreational drugs are also key measures you can take to help reduce stress. As always, speak to your doctor if you feel your stress is adversely affecting your health and life.
Tips to deal with stress:
- Stress can have a number of physical and emotional effects on your body. Stress can cause high blood pressure, headache, chest pain, skin problems such as hives, a rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, muscle aches, such as back and neck pain, grinding teeth, dry throat, insomnia, indigestion, impaired sexual function, constipation or diarrhea, stomach cramping or bloating, increased perspiration, often causing cold, sweaty hands, fatigue, and weight gain or loss.
- There are a number of ways you can reduce your stress so that it does not eventually affect your health.
- Be optimistic and stay positive. Research shows that being optimistic allows you to better deal with stressful situations. This in turn will reduce the effects of stress on the body.
- Change how you emotionally respond to stress. Being able to manage stress does not mean you have to figure out how to get rid of stress completely. External factors can make this very difficult to do. But you can develop positive strategies to deal with stress to avoid negative outcomes. Make sure to think about stress as your reaction to an event, rather than the event itself. This makes it easier to identify healthy ways to manage stress. Even though you can’t control some of the stressors in your life, you can control your response to them.
- Get good at time management. It is important to have good time management skills to best deal with stress. Make sure you have your schedule planned out so you are not rushing or forgetting important things. Also, make sure to balance your work life with your personal life. Make time for leisurely activities and for family and friends.
- Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet. Eating a poor diet that lacks in nutrition can cause you to feel more stressed out because it limits you from getting the proper energy you need to feel good throughout the day as well as get a good night’s sleep. Make sure to eat at least three meals a deal, or six small meals a day. Limit the amount of fat, sugar and salt you take in, and try to eat more unprocessed foods and more fruits and vegetables. This can help balance your energy throughout the day and battle whatever external stress factors come your way.