If you feel stressed on a regular basis, you're not alone. Modern life is conducive to stress, as many of us have to juggle work, families, social lives and countless other responsibilities.
While occasional stress may be inevitable, it’s important to combat it. According to the American Psychological Association, stress can lead to myriad negative health effects, including compromised respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal and musculoskeletal systems. If you’re thinking, “Wait. Isn’t that almost every system?” you’d be right. Stress negatively impacts almost every aspect of our well-being.
How stress affects your body
Cardiovascular: When we feel stressed – even if that stress is fleeting and minimal, such as experiencing frustration over a traffic jam – our heart contracts and our pulse speeds up. This is a response to the presence of three stress hormones, adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. These hormones are produced in order to trigger a fight or flight response. This kind of stress is good for keeping us alive in certain situations, but it’s not so good as a default state of being. Over time, these effects on the heart can cause chronic cardiac stress, elevated blood pressure and an increased risk for hypertension.
Musculoskeletal: Your muscles and bones also react to that cocktail of stress hormones. When we feel stressed, our muscles tense up, preparing us for fight or flight. Having constantly tight muscles is unpleasant enough in and of itself, but it may also trigger other bodily reactions, such as headaches and chronic pain.
Respiratory: Stress hormones cause us to breathe harder – so those with lung disease, asthma and other respiratory problems are at particular risk for this impact of stress. It can also lead to hyperventilation, which can bring on panic attacks.
Endocrine: The endocrine system is responsible for the release of your stress hormones, but in addition to that response, it also helps regulate your blood sugar levels. When you become stressed, your body keeps your blood sugar high so that you have enough energy to respond to emergencies. The APA states that controlling stress levels can lead to reductions in blood sugar.
Gastrointestinal: There are a multitude of ways stress affects your gut. As you probably already know, stress makes us prone to emotional eating. Stress can also worsen heartburn and acid reflux problems.
Ways to combat stress
If you’re feeling stressed – whether it’s in a quick moment such as a traffic jam or as a long-term underlying feeling – it’s important to take some time to settle down and bring yourself back to earth.
The advice may sound tired, but holding your breath and counting to ten is a great first step to reducing stress. It regulates your breathing, which sets into motion a chain of reactions that work to physically and mentally combat stress.
As you’re holding your breath, and for a few minutes after, remind yourself of reassuring thoughts. Think about how far you have come in life. If you’re feeling dissatisfied with your job, relationship or some other aspect of your life, focus instead on positive things that bring you joy. Perhaps you have a great relationship with a parent, sibling or friend. Maybe you live in a city you truly enjoy. Find an aspect of your life that resonates deeply within you and allow yourself to feel proud of that accomplishment.
Some people are simply calmer and more reassuring than others. If you have a person in your life that fits this bill, give him or her a call when you’re feeling stressed. Chances are this person will remind you not to sweat the small stuff.
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