Stress and our Bodies

Stress.  We are all too familiar with that word and its affect on us and those around us.  And who isn’t stressed these days? Stress is defined as any kind of change that can cause physical, emotional, or psychological strain.  The effects of stress can be positive, by keeping us vital, active and excited.  However, chronic stress from work, bad relationships or other negativity in our lives, can wreak havoc on our health and our lives.

What are the physiological affects of stress?

Stress triggers the body’s response to a perceived danger or threat, activating the sympathetic, or “fight or flight” nervous system.  This results in temporary changes to our body, including increase in heart rate and blood pressure and release of glucose into the system.  Coupled with this is a decrease in digestive process, immune system response and suppression of reproductive and growth processes.  While our bodies are built to recover from the occasional “fight or flight” response, chronic and unrelenting stress can cause major damage to our bodies through the overproduction of cortisol and adrenaline.

Chronic stress can cause the following deleterious effects on our bodies:

-Increased agitation

-Chronic headaches

-Increased susceptibility to colds and the flu

-Depression and anxiety

-High blood pressure, possibly leading to heart disease and strokes

-Diabetes (due to the increased release of glucose in the system)

-Weight gain (due to an increase of cortisol in the system)

-Insomnia and sleep disorders

-Chronic muscle and joint problems

Stress always goes to the weakest link in our system.  As a chiropractor, I see people in my office all the time with stress related exacerbations of their neck, back or shoulder problems. As wonderful as technology is, our “plugged” in society leaves us with more and more to do and less available time to do it in.  Our ability to interact constantly with the entire worlds leaves us less and less likely to interact with our natural environment.  However, it is interaction with our natural environment that can inevitably bring our stress levels down and bring more joy and fulfillment into our lives.

Here are some suggestions for how to reduce stress levels:

Spend time outside appreciating nature.

Exercise! Numerous studies have correlated exercise to a positive mental outlook and a decrease in depression.  Exercise also seems to have a link to increased mental clarity.  One explanation is that that exercise releases endorphins and enkephalins-natural antidepressants.

Journaling and prayer are considered meditative and cleansing for the soul.  These practices bring one inward and allow for reflection, improving coping strategies and allowing for analysis of the effects of our stressors.

Eat a healthy diet: Increasing the consumption of vegetables, fruits and whole grains, and decreasing consumption of sugars and other refined and processed foods can decrease inflammation in the body, leaving the body better able to fight stress that comes your way.  Remember the old saying –“You are what you eat!”

Use positive imagery: One popular recent book “The Secret” talk about how our thoughts influence our reality.  You are what you eat, but you also are what you think and believe.  Believe “life is good” and things will get better.

Meditation: many studies have shown link between a regular meditation practice and reduced stress levels.  Meditation reverses the effects of the sympathetic nervous system by decreasing heart rate, blood pressure, and respiratory rate.  It also provides the body with time to clear the mind of negative or stressful thoughts.

Breath work:  When we become stressed out, our breathing naturally becomes shallow. Training ourselves to breathe deeply in times of stress will reverse this natural tendency, reducing our stress at the same time!

All in all, the attitude we take towards the stressors in our life had a strong impact on how these events affect us.   Maintaining perspective and our sense of humor can go a long way in helping to cope with stressful events, eventually lessening their impact on us and our lives.