The body’s stress response is an adaptation for survival that was essential for helping us perform under high stress situations to improve our odds of survival.
Imagine our ancestors hundreds of years ago, being chased by a predator. Their survival and ability to pass on their genes to the next generation hinged on the adaptability of the fight-of-flight response. Under times of stress, our body responds by activating our sympathetic nervous system. The result is increased mental sharpness, enhanced perception by the senses, plus increased stamina and strength.
These physiological changes where never meant to last long. The enhanced state was meant to be the exception to the rule, rather than the normal state of being. Even though they can significantly improve chances of survival when we’re in actual physical danger, the physiological changes associated with active fight-or-flight state can cause damage to the body if left unchecked.
Even though most of us aren’t being chased by tigers or defending ourselves from invading tribes on a regular basis, our response to modern day stress is the same. It’s our perception of the source of stress is what has changed. Today’s stress comes in the form of pressure to perform at work or school, family dynamics or obligations, chronic disease or pain, and money among other modern day problems.
Our constant perception of danger, insecurity, or pressure to preform triggers our body’s fight-or-flight response, triggering the sympathetic physiological response and turning of the restorative parasympathetic system.
The parasympathetic system runs opposite to the sympathetic and cannot be active while the sympathetic is on. Also known as the “rest-and-digest” mode, the parasympathetic state is the one we’re meant to be in most of the time. It’s during this phase that we can digest properly, maintain mental and emotional clarity, and produce the physiological response needed to repair the damage caused by the sympathetic overdrive.
The result of failing to shut off the sympathetic response is equivalent to burning out a motor. Eventually the wear and tear on the physiologic mechanisms causes the system to overload, resulting in damage that manifests as chronic disease.
Chronic stress and sympathetic activation can affect almost every single body system:
-Cardiovascular: HTN, palpitations, heart attack and stroke.
-Endocrine: Increased production of adrenaline and cortisol, diabetes, obesity, eating disorders and metabolic disease.
-Integumentary and Skeletal: muscle tension, joint and muscle pain, hives, acne
-Central Nervous System and Mental Health: Headaches, depression, insomnia, anxiety and self-medicating resulting in substance abuse.
-Respiratory: Increased exacerbation of asthma (due to increased inflammation)
-Digestive: changes in appetite, Irritable Bowel Disease (IBS/spastic colon), peptic ulcers, and Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD i.e. ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s)
-Immune: increased susceptibility to disease, increased susceptibility to infection, reduced cancer survival
-Reproductive: irregular menstrual cycle, reduced libido, erectile dysfunction, infertility
Managing Stress for Better Health
It’s also important to understand that stress does not have to obvious or dramatic to affect your health. Rather, it may be less obvious, moderate yet long-term stress that is a source of concern. In fact, according to the 2013 Stress in America survey, ongoing money concerns and work pressure are cited as the most common sources of stress. Other concerns include long-term relationship problems, loneliness and isolation, persistent pain or illness, perception of danger or recollection of traumatic event (PTSD), among others.
44% of Americans report that they are not doing enough to manage their stress. That’s almost half of us! Learning proper stress management can dramatically improve your quality of life and health.
5 stress management techniques:
1. Meditation – Probably the most studied area involves the effects of mindful meditation stress. If you only do one thing to reduce your stress level, the evidence presented in the literature hands down points to meditation being that one step. We like Headspace smartphone app for an easy-to-use guided meditation ap.
2. Yoga and breathing techniques – Along the same lines, yoga and active breathing exercises are also. Don’t have time for a whole yoga class? Even taking 10-20 minutes once a day or more to do some basic poses and deep abdominal breathing exercises can help.
3. Exercise – is a proven method of managing stress. Not only does it help you breath and improve circulation, the repetitive actions involved in certain kinds of exercise can be meditative in themselves.
4. Reprioritizing your “big rock” – Sometimes we need to take a step back and redefine what’s the most important in our life. If something in your life is causing your so much stress that it’s affecting your health, you may want to reassess how to mitigate that relationship or situation.
5. Asking for support – That might mean delegating more of your tasks, getting support in redefining your priorities, or that might mean finding a lifestyle coach, councilor or therapist that can teach your how to manage your stress and triggers better.
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