“Stress” is typically used when describing “mental stress” but in actual fact stress comes from many sources and for many reasons: mental, emotional, chemical and physical. Job security, working too hard, not working at all, commuting, relationships, illness, worry about a loved one, lack of sleep, retirement, bereavement and moving house all can serve to create stress. A recent survey by the American Psychology Association revealed that 54% of Americans are concerned about their stress levels, and two-thirds would likely seek help for their stress.
Many people are stressed without really knowing it; it’s just the way of modern life and we get used to it. However, it still creates genuine strains on your body that are manifested as an increase in: blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, metabolism, and blood flow to your muscles. This is your primitive fight-or-flight reaction kicking in, preparing you for action in the face of a stressful situation.
The Stress Response
Your stress (fight-or-flight) response, while useful in threatening and dangerous situations to preserve life and limb, is not healthy when it pretty much never goes away. Nowadays, it is rarely triggered in response to an aggressor who must be fought off or a predator that must be fled from; instead, as an ongoing reaction to life’s stresses, it is very harmful to your health.
Of course, different people will react to the same situation in different ways. It is not the situation, then, as much as the individual’s reaction to it. What might stress one person may not bother another.
How the body copes with stress
When stressed, your pituitary gland releases a hormone called adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which acts like an alarm system inside your brain. It instructs the adrenal glands on top of your kidneys to dump stress hormones into your bloodstream, including cortisol and adrenaline. These cause numerous physiological changes in your body, including a rise in your heart rate and blood pressure, shutting down your digestive system, and affecting your immune system. Following the panic, the cortisol and adrenaline in your bloodstream should decline to normal levels, as should your heart rate and blood pressure and other affected bodily functions.
The problem is when these levels are not allowed to reduce to normal levels, but instead remain raised due to the ongoing perceived stress of various situations. The body then never has a chance to fully recover its natural and healthful state. Long term, this stress response can badly disrupt practically all your body’s processes. You will probably have experienced some of these effects yourself: headaches and upset stomachs are common results of stress, thanks to the effects of your stress hormones.
Your immune system also suffers with chronic stress, becoming weaker and less able to fend off colds and other infections. Working well, your immune system responds to infection by releasing several substances that cause inflammation. However, when chronic systemic inflammation takes place due to stress, degenerative diseases can become the order of the day.
Stress is known to affect the nervous system as well, causing anxiety, panic attacks, depression and even dementia, because the chronic release of cortisol can cause damage to certain parts of the brain. It equally affects sleep patterns and sex drive. The rise in heart rate and blood pressure for the cardiovascular system is a very dangerous mix, with the potential for heart attacks or strokes.
You may be so used to being stressed that you may miss or dismiss the signs, so it’s good to take stock and consider whether you are experiencing any of the following: anxiety, insomnia, back pain, constipation, shortness of breath, stiff neck, fatigue, upset stomach, weight gain or loss, depression, problems in relationships. Any of these may indicate you are stressed.
How to deal with stress
Decades of research tell us that stress is not, as was once supposed, “all in the mind”; it creates very real physical effects. Considering that avoiding stressful situations is not always possible, you are advised to become acquainted with the actions you can take to try and minimize its negative influences.
Relaxed Breathing: Stress typically leads to rapid, shallow breathing, which sustains other aspects of the stress response, such as increased heart rate and perspiration. Controlling your breathing is a simple and effective way to combat the effects of stress so it doesn’t spiral. Relaxed breathing, or diaphragmatic breathing, can help.
Try this technique twice a day, every day, and especially when you feel tense or stressed:
- Mouth closed, shoulders relaxed, inhale slowly and deeply through your nose to a count of six, allowing the air to fill your diaphragm.
- Keep the air in your lungs as you slowly count to four.
- Exhale through your mouth as you slowly count to six.
- Repeat this cycle three to five times.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation: The aim of this is to reduce the tension stored in your muscles. Find somewhere you won’t be interrupted. Loosen clothing, remove glasses, dim the lighting – whatever’s necessary for you to feel relaxed.
Tense each of the following muscle areas for a minimum five seconds before relaxing for at least 30 seconds. Repeat before moving to the next area.
- Upper face: Raise your eyebrows upwards, feeling the tension in your forehead and scalp. Relax. Repeat.
- Central face: Squint your eyes tightly, wrinkle your nose and mouth, feeling the tension there. Relax. Repeat.
- Lower face: Clench your teeth and pull back the corners of your mouth, showing your teeth like a snarling dog. Relax. Repeat.
- Neck: Gently lower your chin to touch your chest, feeling it pull at the back of your neck. Relax. Repeat.
- Shoulders: Raise your shoulders toward your ears, feeling the tension in the shoulders, head, neck and upper back. Relax. Repeat.
- Upper arms: Pull your arms back, pressing your elbows into your flanks. Don’t tense your lower arms. Feel the tension in your arms, shoulders and back. Relax. Repeat.
- Hands and lower arms: Make a tight fist and tense your wrists. Feel the tension in your hands, knuckles and lower arms. Relax. Repeat.
- Chest, shoulders and upper back: Pull your shoulders backwards like you want the shoulder blades to touch. Relax. Repeat.
- Stomach: Tighten your stomach muscles as you suck in your tummy. Feel the tension. Relax. Repeat.
- Upper legs: Squeeze your knees together as you lift your legs up off the chair or the floor. Feel the tension in your thighs. Relax. Repeat.
- Lower legs: Lift your feet toward the ceiling while flexing them back to point at your body. Feel the tension in your calves. Relax. Repeat.
- Feet: Turn your feet inward as you curl your toes up and spread them out. Relax. Repeat.
Perform these progressive muscle relaxations twice each day to get the maximum benefit. Take about 10 minutes in total for each session.
Listen to Soothing Sounds: Even just 10 minutes alone with soothing sounds can help you relax. Let your mind get away from the stresses of the day. Choose relaxing meditation CDs where you are talked through a process that you follow, or opt for soothing music or some natural sounds that you find calming.
Exercise: Although exercise may seem contrary to relaxation, it is fantastic as a release of pent-up energy. Not only will you be improving your overall health, which guards against the negative effects of stress, but exercise releases endorphins – natural mood enhancers that can help lift your mood for many hours. Studies have shown that exercise helps people concentrate, sleep better, suffer less illness, less pain, and enjoy a generally better quality of life. It doesn’t matter how old you are, either. Exercise at any age will create amazing benefits for your mind and body, and help banish feelings of stress.
For Your Health,
Dr. Steven M. Gillis