Effects of Stress on the Body

Stress. We all experience it, and it’s not all bad. The stress response is important to our survival. It helps us deal with danger or immediate threats to our life and safety. If you are attacked in a dark alley, if your home is broken into, if your life is threatened by a wild animal in the woods, or even another person,  the chemical reactions we call the stress response are vital to your survival.

The problems with stress occur when the body releases stress related chemicals in the absence of a true life threatening situation.  For the sake of explanation, let’s pretend you’re walking in the woods alone and a bear approaches. This is a potentially life threatening situation. Your body releases adrenaline, cortisol, and other chemicals that sharpen your senses, increase glucose in your blood stream for quick energy and prepare you to act swiftly in order to save your life. When you back away from the bear, and eventually run, your body uses up the glucose, cortisol and adrenaline and other chemicals. When the crisis is over, body functions return to normal.

But, when you experience non-life threatening stress those chemicals, and the excess glucose, are not used. They circulate through your body and cause cellular damage and inflammation, and the excess glucose ends up being stored as fat.

When this condition continues for any period of time, the result can be hormonal imbalance, increased hunger, carb cravings, disrupted sleep, mental and psychological symptoms like depression and inability to concentrate, and even personality and mood changes, high blood pressure, high or unstable blood sugar, and even damage to artery walls and internal organs.

Fortunately, there are ways to control and mitigate the effects of non-life threatening stress.

Most importantly, control your attitude. You can influence the extent of the stress reaction in most cases. If you allow yourself to become upset, angry, or afraid over some every-day event, your body will release those stress chemicals. By contrast, if you concentrate on deep breathing, taking a wider view of the situation, or staying emotionally detached from a potentially upsetting, but not life-threatening event, your body is less likely to release stress hormones into your system. Not only does the absence of stress hormones help protect your health, but you’re more likely to think the situation through before you act.

Pay attention to nutrition. If you’re not eating enough calories, or you’re eating the wrong calories, (like to many carbs, and not enough protein or fat), then your body thinks it’s starving. And that, in itself can trigger a stress reaction.

Take a walk in nature. Research has proven that just 30 minutes of nature sounds a day can significantly lower the level of stress hormones.

Listen to music you enjoy. Whether you enjoy heavy metal, Country, Pop, Classical, Rap or something else, listening to music that speaks to you can lower stress levels.

Talk it out. Even if you’re only talking to yourself, talking through a potentially upsetting event out loud can help you get a handle on your emotions. If you’re uncomfortable talking to yourself in public, pull out your cell phone and talk to it. People around you will think you’re on the phone.

Write it out. Writing is great therapy. It gives you the chance to let your back-brain do the talking and you find out what you *really* think. You can express things in a private written document that you could never express out loud to another person. Really can’t stand Aunt Martha? You’d never say it to her face, nor would you ever tell anyone in your family how you really feel. But, your notebook or text file will never tell.

Play sports of some sort. Whether it’s walking, running, swimming, baseball, biking, or anything else, engaging in a sport is a great stress reliever.

Do something you can get completely lost in. Some examples are reading, gardening, meditating, having sex, writing, fiber arts (knitting, crocheting, weaving and the like). Even doing a crossword or logic puzzle can completely engross your mind and put you in another, calmer place.

Treat yourself well. In our modern world we expect to much of ourselves. Most of us try to be everything to all the people in our lives, and we don’t take enough downtime for ourselves. Take the downtime you need. The dishes, laundry and vacuuming will wait. So will the yard work The kids won’t starve if you start dinner 30 minutes late, or make them get their own breakfast.

Most of the stress modern humans experience is self-induced. Very few of us experience a true life-threatening situation in today’s word. Remember that, and learn to keep your stress reactions to a minimum.

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