Being a human being means being subjected to stress from time to time. We have been hardwired to deal with stress from the very beginning of our existence. But stress millions of years ago is very different from modern day stress. Our prehistoric stress was a result of being chased by a very large animal with very large teeth. These periods of stress were short-term.
Our bodies are actually well adapted to deal with short-term stress. But when our stress levels remain high for an extended period of time because of too much work, bad relationships, and financial obligations… we become at risk of developing some serious health concerns that affect our entire body.
You’ve probably heard by now that stress causes the body to secrete cortisol which can lead to weight gain, but that’s not all it does. Cortisol sends a message to your liver demanding that it produce more blood sugar to give you an instant rush of energy so you can run from the big thing that’s chasing you.
But when there is nothing to run from except a mound of bills that isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and you’re stressed about those bills day after day after day, then your liver is constantly being called upon to release more and more glucose. Obviously consistently high levels of glucose put you at risk for type 2 diabetes. So even if you eat fairly well but have been under a lot of stress for a long time, you may become diabetic.
Momentary stress, like when you have to give a speech, will make your heart beat faster and your blood pressure rise. Long-term stress, like when you bring your newborn home and spend the next five years making very sure you keep him or her alive, can cause your arteries to narrow and elevate your bad cholesterol levels. This in turn puts you at a much greater risk for heart disease and stroke.
Stress can have catastrophic effects on men’s health – from a loss of libido to erectile dysfunction, and even lower sperm count!
Stress can also wreak havoc on a woman’s menstrual cycles. Cycles can become more painful, erratic, or stop all together. High levels of stress can produce bacterial vaginosis and, should the stress occur during pregnancy, can increase the risk of the baby developing asthma and allergies later in life.
Short-term stress can actually be beneficial, giving your immune system a boost and helping to fight off infections. But long-term stress compromises your immune health and makes you more susceptible to infections and slows wound healing. It can lead to acne and worsen skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis.
Besides cortisol, other hormones such as adrenaline are released in the “fight or flight” response. When persistently high levels of cortisol and adrenaline are in the blood, it can lead to impaired memory and learning as well as depression.
When you’ve experienced high levels of stress you’ve no doubt recognized that your breathing becomes faster. You may even feel short of breath or have begun to hyperventilate. When this happens over a long period of time, you become much more susceptible to upper-respiratory infections.
Long-term stress can do a real number on your digestive system, causing indigestion, nausea and gas. It may also stimulate the muscles in your intestines causing cramps, diarrhea or constipation. Should these symptoms persist your risk increases for irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers, and severe heartburn.
When we’re stressed our muscles tense so we can deal with whatever danger threatens us. Over time this tension leads to headaches and neck and back pain. Chronic stress may also increase your likelihood of developing osteoporosis.
Well, that’s the bad news. The good news is there are things you can do to combat stress and maintain good health.
Okay, sure, it sounds easier to do than it sometimes is. After all, if you could relax you wouldn’t be stressed, right? But there are some very simple things you can do, no matter what is going on in your life causing you stress, that will help to minimize if not alleviate it .
There are gentle exercises like tai chi and yoga that are incredibly effective at slowing respiration, lowering blood pressure, and releasing stored tension in our muscles. Heck, even taking a walk on the beach or around your neighborhood has the ability to do the same thing.
In fact, there was a very interesting study done in 2008 by a couple of University of Michigan researchers who looked at the restorative effects on cognition by walking, either in a natural or urban environment. The cognitive function they focused on was voluntary attention. Participants first performed a half hour task that required their full attention and which, after not much time, became fatigued. They then spent 50 minutes walking, either in a city or a large park. When they got back they retook the test and those participants who walked in the park performed better overall than those who walked in the city. The moral of the story? Walking is great for our health, but if you can walk somewhere pretty, it’s even more beneficial.
Stress quite literally kills us by killing our neurons and making it incredibly difficult for our bodies to make new ones. But, studies have shown that aerobic exercise helps us create new neurons and connections. In general, exercise is a great way to promote brain health and counteract the effects of stress. Another benefit of exercise is that it helps us sleep better, and sleep cycles are usually disturbed by stress.
Exercise also boosts the production of those “feel-good” chemicals endorphins, which helps battle depression often brought on by chronic stress.
Often when we feel stressed we also feel isolated and alone. It’s important during these times to reach out to friends and family and pets, and even cultivate a new network of friends that share your interests. Studies have shown that satisfying relationships are crucial to both our mental and physical health.
Every person intuitively knows that laughing simply feels good and more and more research has shown it really is a medicine, and one of the best ones. Fighting has an ability to fight off stress. In 2002, researcher Mary Bennet and her colleagues showed two videos to a group of adult women who, like most people, had various levels of stress in their lives at the time.
One of the videos was a tourism video and the other was a funny video (most likely of cats or people falling down – of course that is only our own speculation). It was the funny video that had the women report decreased levels of stress.
Even more interesting, a 2004 neuroimaging study showed that self-generated emotions such as happiness or sadness activated the exact same areas of the brain as “real” emotions. They also found that imagined laughter was successful at reducing sadness and imagined crying was equally successful at reducing happiness.
What does this tell us? Emotions are powerful and so is your mind. If you’re feeling stressed at work imagine your favorite part from a funny movie or imagine the last time you laughed really hard. You should experience a decrease in your stress levels.
Not many of us will get through life without experiencing some level of stress at some time or other. And while it’s normal, it’s just not healthy. So remember to follow these tips to manage your stress and maintain good health.