Stress is unavoidable, we all experience stress throughout our lives, but did you know it can and does affect your health even when you don’t realize it? According to the Mayo Clinic, “stress can affect your body, your thoughts and feelings, and your behavior”. Given the impact stress can have it is important to understand what stress is, the types of stress, recognize the symptoms and learn techniques for managing and reducing stress.
First lets define stress; it is the body’s reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response. The body reacts to these changes with physical, mental and emotional responses (sometime in the form of strain or tension). Stress can come from your environment, your body and even your thoughts. Stress is also our bodies reaction to demanding situations and it causes hormonal, respiratory, cardiovascular and nervous system changes. In short, it is our bodies “fight-or-flight” response, increasing our heart rate, sweating, and breathing more rapidly.
It’s important to note there is both “good” stress and “bad” stress. The good stress occurs for short durations and isn’t usually something we need to be concerned about. Before giving a presentation you might feel nervous or butterflies, this is normal and can be helpful in heightening our senses so we are more focused. Bad stress is very negative and lasts over long periods of time. Many people feel worried, angry, scared or even frustrated and this type of stress is very bad for our health.
Types of stress
There are four specific types of stress, they are:
- Eustress: this is the “fun and exciting” stress. We experience it most often when we have a surge of adrenaline, like when riding a roller coaster, skiing, playing sports, cheering on your favorite team, or in general during positive moments of excitement. This type of stress energizes you and often promotes those “feel good” emotions.
- Acute stress: this type of stress could surface as either positive or negative and usually is short in duration. Unless there are very negative situations, this stress is what we feel most often during our daily life and can be caused by either work or home challenges.
- Episodic acute stress: this is a very concerning and negative type of stress that too often becomes a way of life for some people. They experience it daily and it causes difficulty by creating a life of painful emotional responses, feeling life is out of control.
- Chronic stress: this is the worse form of stress because it is often experienced as inescapable with no end in sight. Chronic stress can develop when we feel too much pressure at work that lasts for extended periods, many months or even years. It can also develop if we are in negative relationships or as a result of traumatic experiences.
What happens when we experience stress?
Since stress is primarily our bodies response to a fight-or-flight situation so we can move away or physically respond and our bodies immediately release adrenaline and cortisol. Combined they give our bodies a surge of energy by speeding up the heart rate, slowing blood flow to muscles, slowing digestion and changes autonomic functions. Our bodies developed this response in the past when it was necessary to fight off or get away from animal attacks or bad people. However, in today’s society we usually don’t have to physically fight or run, but we can still experience stress from work or just sitting in traffic.
Once we find time to calm down or the perception of the stressful situation is gone, our bodies have a relaxation response allowing our heart rate, breathing, and hormonal balance to return to normal. If stress continues over long periods and we aren’t able to relax; that means we are living in a constant state of stress and it will cause damage to our bodies. We can also begin to develop bad habits in the form of using food to relax us or “deal with” the stress. Others might turn to smoking as a way to relieve the stress. Both have their own negative affects and will lead to even more problems.
What are the effects of stress?
When our body releases cortisol from our adrenal glands it is directly involved in maintaining glucose, blood pressure, blood sugar, our inflammatory response and even immune function. These are all very positive effects and helps us stay healthy.
Too much cortisol has very negative effects. During times of prolonged stress cortisol lowers our immune response, causes lose of bone density and muscle, increases blood pressure, reduces thyroid function and (this is one of the worse affects) it causes increases belly fat. Many studies have shown that increased belly fat leads to significant health issues like heart attack, high cholesterol, and strokes.
If unchecked stress will lead to a number of serious health problems. Some include; hair loss, ulcers, diabetes, tooth and gum disease, higher anxiety levels, depression, and other emotional disorders. Other health concerns may develop as well, like withdrawing from family and friends, drinking too much, feeling constant pressure or worry, lack of sleep and even panic attacks. See graphic below for more details on the affects of stress.
How do we learn to manage stress?
As we’ve just learned, stress is an everyday occurrence in our lives and there is no getting around it. We’ve also learned that some types of stress can be beneficial while others are very destructive to our long-term health. Now we need to ask ourselves how do we recognize when we’re feeling stress and more importantly how do we management it. Ideally, we need to remove chronic stress entirely as it causes more harm than any other type of stress. Now that you understand just how negative stress is both physically and mentally, hopefully you also realize it is critical to find ways to reduce stress and take back your health.
Here are a few techniques you should implement into your daily routine:
Combining some or all of these techniques will be very beneficial in controlling stress. The short-term or quick responses to stress are recognizing when a stressful situation occurs, then pausing to acknowledge the stress. This helps you learn to recognize them consistently so you can control them before they escalate. To help you refocus away from the stress, try taking a few deep breaths, take a short break, go for a two minute walk, talk to a co-worker or if needed reschedule a meeting.
Exercise is a very powerful tool in reducing stress because it provides physical movement and releases “happy hormones”. Plus it serves as a distraction from whatever the source of stress is. Exercise by walking, lifting weights, playing volley ball, taking a spin class, go bowling, running, or any activity you find most enjoyable. Working out with a group of friends is also rewarding as it combines exercise and quality time (being social) with those you care about. Making exercise a priority is an important step in controlling stress.
Some other options might be to show gratitude by considering the things you are most thankful for. Many studies show those who express gratitude have a better quality of life with less stress and better mental health.
Lastly, make sure you have a good nutrition plan by including healthy proteins, fats and carbs. Too often when we are stressed we want to reach for unhealthy processed foods that are high in sugar and bad fats. These are only a temporary solution and when you crash from the effect, it can make your stress worse. For tips on good nutrition, please refer to “what is nutrition“.
Here is a short video from Dr. Dean Ornish with several tips on managing stress.
See your doctor if you feel you need help
If you reach a point that you feel you might need help managing your stress, please see your primary care physician. Your doctor will be able to assist you in finding resources to manage your stress as well as make sure you don’t have any physical health issues that need to be addressed.