We’ve all been there. You hit snooze one too many times on your alarm or you have your outfit picked out only to realize your shirt needs ironing, and now you’re late for work due to a wardrobe malfunction. From there, the day spirals into one more stressful situation after another - traffic, work stress, family stress, the list goes on and on. Some days, the stressful situations never seem to end. However, that's not how we're supposed to work. Repeated stress without knowing the proper tools to manage that stress can really do a number on your body.
Stress and the Body
When the body experiences stress, it goes into “fight or flight” mode. Stress hormones are released in the body to help you react to whatever stressful situation lies in front of you. At that point, the breath begins to quicken, and the heart starts to beat a little faster. Perspiration pricks on your hairline and your muscles begin to tense.
When the body perceives danger, it takes that information in through the amygdala, the part of the brain that helps process emotions. The amygdala then communicates with the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that acts as mission control, sending out appropriate response signals to the rest of the body. These responses are sent via the sympathetic nervous system, where the fight or flight response resides. When the fight or flight response is triggered, epinephrine and other stress hormones are released, resulting in increased blood flow, elevated blood pressure, sharpened senses, and a surge of alertness when the lungs open up and more oxygen is sent to the brain.
Meant as a survival mechanism, the body doesn’t know whether you’re late for a meeting or if a massive, hungry bear has crossed your path. All your body knows is that you’re in distress and needs to decide whether to fight that bear or run away. Granted, most of us are not encountering half-ton bears in our everyday lives, but still, the fight or flight response gets triggered and sometimes it gets stuck. When that happens, your health can be affected in the following ways:
As one stress can spiral into another throughout your day, your week, or your life, so can the symptoms associated with chronic stress. In addition to the body releasing epinephrine when stressed, it also releases cortisol, aptly known as the stress hormone. As a result, the body craves sugar. Sugar releases serotonin, which helps to calm the body back down. If the body is constantly stressed, and if cortisol is constantly being released, the body will continually crave sugar without feeling satisfied.
Others can experience more elevated negative responses to stress. Depression can cause people to withdraw socially or feel too zapped of energy to exercise, which can then lead to weight gain and feeling even more depressed. Some turn to drugs and alcohol to try and numb out or avoid thinking about the stresses in their lives. All of these responses lead to a number of potentially life-threatening diseases and disorders like addiction, diabetes, obesity, cirrhosis, and cancer. Learning how to manage stress as soon as or even before it starts is the best way to maintain optimal health and overall well-being.
Effective Ways to Manage Stress
While lounging on the couch watching TV or playing Candy Crush or Words with Friends on your smart device may be considered relaxing, these activities will only serve to contribute to chronic stress, not combat it.
A great way to manage stress is to ensure you’re getting an adequate night’s sleep and eating a diet full of healthy fats, leafy green vegetables, and plenty of vitamin C. If you absolutely need to satisfy your sugar craving, opt for a piece of dark chocolate – the darker, the better, as it will contain the least amount of sugar but still help maintain your body’s appropriate blood sugar levels. Also, take a moment out of your day to sip a soothing cup of tea. While herbal teas like peppermint, chamomile, or lavender can help calm the body down, the simple act of drinking something warm can have the same effect. Go for herbal teas and try to limit or avoid caffeinated beverages of any kind, as caffeine can only exacerbate stressors already firing in the body.
Maintaining an active lifestyle, alongside maintaining a healthy diet, is perhaps the best way to ward off stress. Exercise not only helps prevent disease and increases physical well-being, but in terms of stress management, it increases cognitive function, alertness, and concentration, while reducing feelings of lethargy and fatigue. Your energy levels will increase, your sleep will improve, and as a result, your ability to manage stress when it comes your way will improve, too.
There are a number of other ways to practice self-care. Treat yourself to a spa day or a massage. Take up a gentle or restorative yoga class or begin a meditation practice at home. Even taking one minute out of your day for a few deep, cleansing breaths can have an incredible influence on decreasing your stress levels. Carve out time to simply sit and listen to music or curl up on the couch and read a few pages of a good book. Spend time with friends and family. Above all, find a way to smile and laugh – it truly is the best medicine.