The Ugly Truth About Stress

Stress is a normal physical response to events that make you feel threatened or upset your balance in some way. When you sense danger, whether it’s real or imagined, the body’s defenses kick into high gear in a rapid, automatic process known as the “fight-or-flight” reaction, or the stress response. The stress response is the body’s way of protecting you. When working properly, it helps you stay focused, energetic, alert, meet challenges, properly respond to emergency situations, and sharpens concentration during presentations or challenges.

But beyond a certain point, stress stops being helpful and starts causing major damage to your health, your mood, your productivity, your relationships, and your quality of life.

What Is the “fight or flight response?” Stress can trigger the body’s response to perceived threat or danger, the Fight-or-Flight response. During this reaction, certain hormones like adrenalin and cortisol are released, speeding the heart rate, slowing digestion, shunting blood flow to major muscle groups, and changing various other autonomic nervous functions, giving the body a burst of energy and strength. Originally named for its ability to enable us to physically fight or run away when faced with danger, it’s now activated in situations where neither response is appropriate, like in traffic or during a stressful day at work. When the perceived threat is gone, systems are designed to return to normal function via the relaxation response, but in our times of chronic stress, this often doesn’t happen enough, causing damage to the body.

so, in the short-term, how does stress effect the body? First, your hypothalamus, which is located above the brain stem, is activated. It is responsible for linking your nervous system (your body’s communicator) to your endocrine system (a group of organs that release hormones) by way of the pituitary gland. This also tells the sympathetic nervous system to get going. Next, adrenaline, the body’s main stress hormone, is released. There’s also a release of cortisol, another stress hormone, by the adrenal gland. Cortisol increases blood pressure and blood sugar, making your liver manufacture some glucose to provide you with extra energy as well. After your stress goes away you may feel a physical crash — this is because of the extra glucose you’ve burned off. It essentially leaves you with a low supply of blood sugar, like when you haven’t had anything to eat all day.

More common effects of stress are noted to emerge in more ways than just physically.

1. Physically: Headache, muscle tension or pain, chest pain, fatigue, change in sex drive, stomach upset, sleep problems, diarrhea or constipation, nausea, dizziness, rapid heartbeat, frequent colds
2. Emotionally: Anxiety, restlessness, lack of motivation or focus, irritability or anger, sadness or depression, feeling overwhelmed, sense of loneliness
3. Behaviorally: Overeating or under-eating, angry outbursts, drug or alcohol abuse, tobacco use, social withdrawal, sleeping too much or too little, procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities, nervous habits (e.g. nail biting, pacing)
4. Cognitively: Memory problems, inability to concentration, poor judgment, seeing only the negative, anxious or racing thoughts, constant worrying

When stress becomes chronic, the symptoms are not apparent immediately, however, they can develop into more serious concerns the longer that someone stays in a state of chronic stress. The first symptoms are relatively mild, like chronic headaches and increased susceptibility to colds. The American Institute of Stress lists 50 symptoms of stress. Aside from the ones we’ve already talked about, these conditions (but not limited too) can emerge:

Depression, diabetes, hair loss, heart disease, hyperthyroidism, obesity, obsessive-compulsive or anxiety disorder, sexual dysfunction, tooth and gum disease, ulcers, cancer (possibly), grinding teeth, stuttering, tremors, ringing or buzzing sounds, sweaty palms and feet, chronic blushing, dry mouth, allergy attacks, rapid and garbled speech patterns, hypertension, inability to et pregnant

In fact, most it’s been estimated that as many as 90% of doctor’s visits are for symptoms that are at least partially stress-related!

Want to decrease your stress in 5 minutes? The key is to reach homeostasis, which is a fancy way of saying equilibrium, or “chilled out.” Your blood pressure and blood sugar will return to its normal state, as will your heart rate and pupils. So what do you do to get to a homeostasis state?

1. Breathe Deeply: Take several deep breaths to slow down your heart rate and reduce your anxiety.
2. Relax Your Muscles: Stretch your neck, stand or sit up straight, get some of the tension out of your body. Try meditation or yoga.
3. Make A Change: Step back from what you’re doing and/or what’s stressing you; a few seconds can bring a lot of perspective.
4. Laugh: Nothing relieves the tension in your body, or your mind, like a little humor.

Just breath… Take the time everyday to breath and relax. It will do your health good!

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