When I think of stress, I think of a rubber band being stretched beyond its limit and its eventual ruptured demise. Though our bodies are provided with a natural alarm system, designed to protect us during perilous times, that same fight-or-flight response becomes erosive if it’s engaged for too long—much like that rubber band.
The body isn’t meant to live in a persistent state of fight-or-flight. The result of too much stress results in a concurrence of innumerable health problems. Still, our bodies are remarkable machines, having inbuilt mechanisms that help us move through our lives, and when something stressful occurs, our bodies jump into action.
A perceived threat will trigger the hypothalamus (a tiny region in the brain which sets off the body’s alarm system). This system prompts the adrenal glands to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. While the adrenaline increases the heart rate, raises blood pressure, and creates an energy surge, cortisol (the body’s primary stress hormone) increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances the brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues.(1)
Cortisol has a huge job to do: it keeps the nonessential or potentially detrimental functions at bay during the flight-or-flight response, adjusting the immune system and even suppressing the digestive system, the reproductive system, and growth processes as it does its job. This systemic stress response is self-regulating: when the threat passes, the body begins to normalize itself. However, when there is too much stress—too many perceived threats—over an extended period of time, the adrenals and cortisol lose their ability to work efficiently. A persistent overexposure to stress hormones can “disrupt almost all your body’s processes,” increasing the risk for a number of other physical or emotional difficulties:
- Muscle tension or pain
- Heart disease
- Sleep problems
- Digestive problems
- Sadness or depression
- Irritability or anger
- Eating disorders
- Drug or alcohol abuse
- Social withdrawal
These difficulties are merely a sampling of what is often a long, detailed list of reactions to stress. Left unattended, stress can have negative long-term effects on a you.
So, what do you do when the pressures in your life are mounting with no end in sight? More than you think and in simpler ways than you can imagine. It’s not like you need a vacation to a tropical island to feel better (though that would be amazing!).
Start simply, but be consistant:
- Exercise. It raises your endorphins and releases tension.
- Meditation. Start with 5 minutes a day sitting in silence is too much. Work up to longer periods; before you know it, you’ll be sitting for 30-45 minutes at a time!
- Yoga. It’s a wonderful way to work with your body and breath, creating a synergistic energy that is both energizing, heart opening, and calming.
- Tai chi. Another wonderful way to move y our body in time with your breath. Slow, mindful movements bring you into the present–something that’s easily lost when stress is in charge.
- Relaxation techniques. One of my favorites is a breathing exercise in yoga where you breathe in for a count of five and breathe out for a count of six. As you continue, increase the count on the in-breath while increasing the count on the out-breath. It’s been shown to relax the brain and body as you exhale for a longer count than on the inhale.
Stress isn’t something to shrug off. It’s quickly become a major health concern for an increasingly larger population. It’s time to stop. It’s time to take time every day to do something for yourself. The old adage of “I’m too busy to…” is nil. The reality is, we don’t have time not to take care of ourselves.