When chronic or long term stress is, present people can experience symptoms like anxiety, depression and sleep problems. Some experts claim that stress is responsible for as much as 90% of all illness and disease. Stress increases your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, digestive issues and a weakened immune system. Chronic stress can leave you exhausted both mentally and physically.
How do you define stress? You may think of stress as anger or a response to danger, but it is so much more. Stress is defined as “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances”. Which means sometimes stress can be something we do for fun or health, like exercise or a scary movie. It can also be our thoughts; fear of the future, concern over friends and family or hanging on to negative experiences from our past.
Although stress is defined as a mental or emotional strain, we have a very clear physical response. Our bodies release hormones such as adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine. This is a survival response which gives us a quick burst of energy and allows us to quickly respond to the situation. This is important when someone abruptly stops in traffic or a barking dog is charging at you. The challenge is when our body goes into a state of stress in non-threatening situations or when we stay in this state for extended periods of time.
It’s not possible or even necessary to eliminate all stress to be healthy, but it’s helpful to recognize when you are having a stress response and make an effort to bring your body back out of it. Taking time to calm yourself and your mind down after a stressful situation can be very beneficial to your overall health. That old saying never go to sleep mad has a lot of merit. Perhaps we should change it to never do to sleep stressed.
To first identify what your stressors are you need to listen to your body. Common stress responses are increased heart rate, quickening or deepening of breath, sweating, or muscles tensing. These are all signs that your body is preparing for flight or fight even if there is no real threat. Try monitoring your heart rate and breathing next time you watch the news or a scary movie. I’m not saying to stop watching these programs, but if you do have a stress response you should take the time to calm your body when you’re finished. Virtually everything has the potential to creating stress, so finding ways to adjust our mindset about things we can’t change is of great importance.
The way stress depresses your immune system is by triggering chemical reactions and by releasing cortisol which decreases inflammation, decreases with blood cells which increases the rate of infection. Stress can also have an indirect effect on the immune system if you turn to unhealthy behaviors to cope or reduce stress, such as smoking or drinking.
Stress can have a cumulative effect and when we enter a time of increased stress like the Holidays or major life changes it can lead to serious health issues. It’s important to become aware of daily stress in our lives and minimize them or their effect on us.
I’ll be talking more about stress later in the Stepping Stones for Wellness Healthy Holiday Challenge and sharing strategies to reduce your stress response and repair the effects. If you haven’t joined yet just click here.
For now, here’s a few quick tips to calm your stress response:
- Meditation or guided imagery. Even a few minutes before bed or when you return home can have a huge impact.
- Positive thinking. Something as simple as writing down what you are grateful for each day can change your mood.
- Breathing exercises. One of my favorites is the 4-7-8 Breath by Dr. Weil.
Check back for the next installment of Supporting Your Immune System