Stressors can lurk around every corner—at home with your family, at school, in a quarrel with a spouse or loved one or from the birth of a new baby. Your finances, health and job situation can also cause incredible fluctuations in your stress levels. A 2013 survey by APA’s Center for Organizational Excellence found that more than one-third of working Americans reported experiencing chronic work stress—and only 36% said they felt they had sufficient resources to help them manage that stress.
By understanding how stress impacts your health and taking steps towards better emotional balance, you can begin to lay a balanced foundation for full body health management.
How your body responds to stress
When you encounter a perceived threat—the sound of a blaring car horn, a last-minute email from your boss—your hypothalamus, a small region at the base of your brain, sets off an alarm system in your body. This system then stimulates your adrenal glands to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, to help you deal with the stress.
Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts energy supplies. You may be familiar with the feeling of this hormone surging through your body. Then there’s cortisol, the body’s primary stress hormone, which increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances your brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues.
Cortisol also curbs functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation. It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes. This complex natural alarm system also communicates with regions of your brain that control mood, motivation and fear.
Chronic stress: when stress becomes a habit
When stress starts interfering with your ability to live a normal life, it becomes even more dangerous. The longer the stress lasts, the worse it is for both your mind and body.
If you constantly feel stressed and these systems are always on alert, your fight-or-flight reaction stays active. This long-term activation floods your body with too much adrenaline and cortisol, disrupting almost all your body’s processes.
This chronic stress puts you at increased risk for numerous health problems, including:
- Heart disease
- Weight gain
- Sleep problems
- Digestive problems
- Memory and concentration impairment
Chronic stress can also make existing problems worse. It can hinder your ability to recover from disease, manage illness, treat chronic pain, maintain a healthy pregnancy or stick with a necessary weight loss program.
One analysis of past studies, for instance, suggests that cardiac patients with so-called “Type D” personalities—characterized by chronic distress—face higher risks of bad outcomes.
But by finding positive, healthy ways to manage stress as it occurs, you can reduce many of these negative health consequences.
Some people prefer social activities that put them in contact with friends and family members, such as going out, participating in group fitness activities and classes, or seeing movies and concerts. Others find refuge and freedom in hobbies such as gardening, playing music and creating art. You may find relief in more solitary activities such as reading, meditation, yoga or walking. Even more strenuous physical activity such as a fast run or even a furious house-cleaning session may help diffuse your tension at certain times.
Every person is different, so the ways you choose to manage your stress may differ from what someone close to you might do. And while it’s always good to keep an open mind to new ways to cope with and combat stress, do what works for you.
Techniques to reduce stress
Here are some healthy techniques that can help you to reduce stress and its effects on your body, and maintain a healthier emotional and physical life:
Take a break from what stresses you
You may not think you can get away from a fast deadline at work, mounting debts or a colicky baby. But if you give yourself the green light to step away from it for just a moment, to think about or do something else, you get the opportunity to look at your stressor from a different angle. Taking a break also helps you feel less overwhelmed. This is not to say that you should continually avoid thinking about the issues that are stressing you. But a break helps you recharge your batteries so you can look at your stressor with fresh eyes.
Walk it off
Exercise benefits your mind just as much as it aids your body. The long-term advantages of a regular exercise routine are already clear. But know that even a 20-minute walk, after-work run, early morning swim or dance session on a stressful day can give an immediate effect that can last for several hours. Exercise is one of the fastest-acting stress reducers. Anyone can do it, and anyone can benefit from it.
Reach out for social support
The saying, “It takes a village” can definitely be applied to stress management. Sharing your worries or emotions with someone else certainly helps relieve stress. So long as the people you talk with are individuals you feel are trustworthy and who have your best interests at heart, pick up the phone and call them. And if conversations with your family leave you feeling more stressed than relieved, reach out to friends instead.
Meditate on it
Slowing down to think—whether in meditation or conscious prayer—can help your mind and body to relax and focus. Staying mindful can allow you see things from a new angle, grow empathy and compassion. It can also help you free yourself from emotions that may have been physically stressing your body. Research has shown that even meditating briefly can provide immediate benefits to your health.
Find something to laugh at
Our emotions are tied to our bodies and brains, and the connections run both ways. When you’re stressed, you might notice how much tension you hold in your jaw and facial muscles. Laughing or smiling can help relieve some of that tension and improve the situation. So tune in and watch a TV or film comedy. Even a funny YouTube video on your computer or phone can lift the corners of your mouth, and your spirits—and your health.
Stress management isn’t something that happens overnight. But over time, and with ongoing practice and incorporation of healthy coping mechanisms, you can strengthen your ability to cope with life’s challenges.