Stress Awareness Month:
Understanding the Effects of Stress.
Americans are one of the most stressed out in the world. The current stress level experienced by Americans is 20 percentage points higher than the global average. Living conditions, the political climate, financial insecurity, and work issues are some stressors US adults cite as the cause of their stress. According to a 2019 American Psychological Association study, more than three-quarters of adults report symptoms of stress, including headache, tiredness, or sleeping problems; a 2020 study by the American Psychological Association stated that nearly half of all U.S. adults (49%) say that stress has negatively affected their behavior.
What is Stress?
Stress is a feeling of emotional or physical tension. It can come from any event or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, or nervous. Our acute stress response, or fight or flight response, is the physiological reaction that occurs when we experience something that is mentally or physically terrifying.
In short bursts, stress can be positive, such as when it helps you avoid danger or meet a deadline. Stress is a natural physical and mental reaction to life experiences. Everyone expresses stress from time to time. Anything from everyday responsibilities like work and family to serious life events such as a global pandemic, war, or the death of a loved one can trigger stress. For immediate, short-term situations, stress can be beneficial to your health. However, chronic stress may negatively affect your health and lead to or exacerbate more serious health conditions related to a suppressed immune system and chronic inflammation.
How our body systems respond to stress:
Nervous System: When stressed-physically or psychologically- the body suddenly shifts its energy resources to fighting off the perceived threat. In what is known as the fight or flight response, the sympathetic nervous system signals the adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones make the heart beat faster, raise blood pressure, change the digestive process and boost glucose levels in the bloodstream. Once the crisis passes, body systems usually return to normal.
Musculoskeletal System: Under stress, muscles tense up. The contraction of muscles for extended periods can trigger tension headaches, migraines and various musculoskeletal conditions.
Respiratory System: Stress can make you breathe harder and cause rapid breathing or hyperventilation, which can bring on panic attacks in some people.
Cardiovascular System: Acute stress- stress that is momentary, such as being stuck in traffic, causes an increase in heart rate and stronger contractions of the heart muscle. Blood vessels that direct blood to the large muscles and to the heart dilate, increasing the amount of blood pumped to these parts of the body. Repeated episodes of acute stress can cause inflammation in the coronary arteries, thought to lead to heart attack.
Endocrine System: When the body is stressed, the brain sends signals from the hypothalamus, causing the adrenal cortex to produce cortisol and the adrenal glands to produce epinephrine, also known as “stress hormones”. When cortisol and epinephrine are released, the liver produces more glucose, a blood sugar that would give you the energy for “fight or flight” in an emergency.
Gastrointestinal System: Stress may prompt you to eat much more or much less than you usually do. If you eat more or different foods, or increase your use of tobacco or alcohol, you may experience heartburn or acid reflux. Your stomach can react with “butterflies” or even pain and nausea. You may vomit if the stress is severe enough. Stress can affect digestion and which nutrients your intestines absorb. It can also affect how quickly food moves through your body. You may find that you have either diarrhea or constipation.
The key to reducing stress is to prevent it. Getting enough sleep, a proper diet, avoiding excess caffeine and other stimulants and taking time out to relax may be helpful in managing stress. Here are some healthy and impactful ways to help manage stress:
Sleep is an impactful stress reliever. A consistent sleep routine calms and restores the body, improves concentration, regulates mood, and sharpens judgment and decision making.
Exercise produces endorphins, chemicals in the brain that make you feel good. Endorphins help decrease tension, elevate mood, improve sleep, and boost self-esteem. All these factors can lead to reduced stress levels. Research has also found that exercise can increase emotional resilience, the way you handle stress.
Regular meditation has been reported to help improve emotional reactivity—the way you respond to stress—which, in turn, reduces cortisol levels and inflammatory processes.
Adaptogens are herbal supplements that help you “adapt” to outside stressors and help support your adrenals. Common adaptogens include Ashwaganda, Rhodiola rosea and Eleuthero (Siberian ginseng).
Yoga helps moderate the nervous system, balances hormones, and regulates nerve impulses-three factors that can reduce stress levels and make you better equipped at handling stressful situations.
Recognize when you need more help. Seek professional help from a therapist or counselor. If you are in immediate distress or thinking about hurting yourself, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifelife at 1-800-273-TALK (8225) or you can text the Crisis Text Line (HELLO TO 741741) or use the Lifeline Chat on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/
What to take from this post:
Stress is a feeling of emotional or physical tension. In short bursts, stress can be positive, However, chronic stress may negatively affect your health.
Stress can have negative effects on our nervous, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine and gastrointestinal systems and exacerbate more serious health conditions related to a suppressed immune system and chronic inflammation.
The key to reducing stress is to prevent it. Regular sleep, exercise, yoga, meditation, supplementing with adaptogens and seeking help from mental health professionals can help you manage everyday stressors.