Physical Effects of Stress

We spend a lot of time talking about exercise and nutrition when it comes to our health. Looking at our well-being from a holistic view also means assessing our mental state and asking how it is impacting the health of our bodies.

Stress is a huge offender. While there are both good and bad forms of stress, most often when people talk about feeling stressed they’re referring to the bad kind. And in case you haven’t noticed, people talk about being stressed a lot. It’s extremely common. How did we get this way?

In America it’s almost something to be ashamed of if you aren’t “busy.” How often do people ask in the break room what your plans are for the weekend? It’s an expectation that you fill your time with something. It’s even sometimes implied that you’re lazy if you don’t.

Over the past several years there have been a variety of articles published advocating that we stop glorifying the state of being “busy.”

Glorification of busy.jpg

The central theme is the same: Constantly being busy leads to a constant state of negative stress which impacts your health. And not in a good way.

I think most of us can agree that we’re more likely to feel cranky, moody, and fatigued when we’ve been stressed for an extended period of time. But chronic stress can also impact your musculoskeletal, respiratory, and cardiovascular systems. Less obvious but equally important victims include your digestive and reproductive systems, your skin, emotions, and immunity.

Here is a summary of a few effects of long-term stress on your body:

  • Stress causes muscle tension. In a short-term stress situation (a big exam, a competition, a major presentation, etc.), the muscle tension releases when the source of stress passes. Chronic stress, on the other hand, leaves the muscles in a constant state of tension. This can cause regular headaches and migraines, especially as a result of tension in the neck and shoulders.
  • Stress can make it difficult to breathe. Breathing techniques are a common method of relaxation because they work to counteract the constriction of the airway between the nose and lungs, another side effect of extreme stress.
  • Our sympathetic nervous system (or SNS) governs our “fight or flight” response. It sends signals to other part of the body to tell them what to do in an emergency situation. Stressors trigger the SNS to jump into action. When we’re exposed to stressors over a long period of time, the SNS is constantly operating. While the SNS might be able to handle this, the other parts of the body that are receiving its signals often cannot. This leads to an overall wear and tear, so to speak, on the body and its systems.
  • Stress causes your body to release the hormone cortisol, which can lead to weight gain. But cortisol also can have damaging effects on your skin. It can increase dryness by limiting the skin’s ability to retain moisture, and cause breakouts by telling your skin to produce more oil, among other negative effects.
  • High levels of stress can make you more prone to illness by reducing the amount of lymphocytes in your system, which are responsible for triggering your immune system when a threat is perceived. Without this defense, you are more likely to contract illnesses than you would be with a healthy immune system.

Knowing all of that should move stress management to the top of your priority list! Here are a few ideas to help you reduce the stress in your life.

  • First, you have to know the source of the stress. I think we can all agree that our day jobs cause a certain amount of stress, but other than finding a new place to work, the best we can do is learn to manage it. But what about other triggers? Look at the relationships and activities in your life and do an honest assessment of what is enriching your life and what is draining you. Start subtracting.
  • For the stressors that you can’t subtract, learn to identify when they’re triggered and what your typical reaction is. For instance, if a certain coworker drives you batty, you might notice that after an interaction with them that you have a decidedly negative perspective on anything that hits your desk for the rest of the day. You might take that bad mood home, have a lousy workout, give up and treat yourself to an ice cream. But what if instead you took five minutes after the interaction that set off the chain reaction and made a conscious choice to not react the way that you typically do? Lock yourself into a stairwell, take a few deep breaths, and remind yourself that you don’t have to let that person stress you out. There are any number of other ways that you can react to whatever they’ve dumped on you, and you can choose one that prioritizes your own well-being. (Marshall Goldsmith’s book Triggers is wonderful for learning how to do this.)
  • Prioritize escapes. Just little ones. I like to use my essential oil diffuser while I read a book, or take a relaxing bath. Try to involve as many of your senses as you can. Wrap yourself up in a luxuriously soft and fluffy blanket. Dim the lights. Light a candle or use an oil diffuser. Sip some tea or cocoa. Send the message to your body that this is a safe, comfortable place to relax, and help it release the tension it’s been holding on to.
  • Sometimes finding a physical outlet for all that pent-up stress and frustration is best. Play a sport. Dance it out. Or (you knew this was coming) make time every day for a workout. Most of the workouts I post are under twenty minutes, but by the time they are over I’ve usually forgotten about anything that was bothering me.
  • I know that some people argue that venting your stress is counterproductive because it continues to add fuel to the fire. I suggest setting a limit on how long you’re allowed to vent about something. If you’re carrying on over the same frustration for an hour, you’re probably not saying anything productive. But if you take 10-20 minute to tell a trusted confidante what’s bothering you, it forces you to articulate the source of your consternation and decide a course of action for managing it.

There are lots of ways to take control of the stress in your life so that it stops impacting your health, and these actions should be just as much of a priority as exercise and nutrition. What’s your favorite way to recover from stress?


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