What is stress?
Stress is your body’s natural response to potentially dangerous situations. When your body perceives something as a threat (like another car swerving into your lane while driving), your brain sets off an alarm that signals certain glands in your body to produce the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline increases your heart rate, blood pressure, and energy while cortisol curbs “non-essential functions” (like digestion) so you react more quickly to the “threat” at hand – like the car coming into your lane. This state of heightened awareness is often called “fight-or-flight.”
When the danger has passed, your nervous system self-regulates, and your body returns to its normal state. But, if you’re constantly facing stressors, your body may perceive them as threats and get stuck in fight-or-flight mode. Even though your body’s response can help you stay safe in certain situations, like the driving example, long-term activation of the stress response system can disrupt many of your body’s processes.
How does chronic stress affect the body?
Long-term stress can cause physical discomfort and put you at risk for future health issues.
- Pain in the head, neck, and jaw (as well as tension headaches and migraines) may be caused by stress-induced muscle tension.
- Consistent increase in heart rate and blood pressure plus elevated levels of stress hormones; increased risk for high blood pressure, heart attack, or stroke.
- Long-term increased levels of cortisol can disrupt communication with the immune system, which can increase risk of chronic fatigue, diabetes, obesity, depression, and immune disorders.
- Gastrointestinal issues – like heartburn, bloating, nausea, diarrhea, and constipation – can be triggered by short-term and long-term stress.
- The impact of stress on the nervous system can also negatively affect reproduction and sex drive in both men and women, and cause irregularity in a woman’s menstrual cycle.
How can stress be managed?
If you often feel stressed, you’re not alone. Luckily, there are many healthy ways to cope with stress and improve your overall well-being. Try these tips and see how your stress levels change.
- Make time for yourself, even if it’s just a few minutes a day, to rest or do something you enjoy.
- Seek support from loved ones and/or professionals. Talking helps.
- Experiment with relaxation practices, like meditation, deep breathing, or yoga.
- Exercise regularly – take a walk, ride a bike, dance.
- Get outside! Fresh air and vitamin D are good for your mind and body.