Few illnesses are as endemic to modern society as chronic stress, and fewer still are so routinely ignored. We are so stressed so often that, for many of us, it’s become part of our baseline reality, hardly noticeable most of the time. For others, we wear our stress as a badge of honor, believing it shows how important, how busy, how productive we are, as if being relaxed were somehow synonymous with being lazy.
We keep pushing through, not realizing that many of our mounting health problems — poor digestion, frequent illness, headaches, fatigue, insomnia (to name just a few) — are the direct result of this chronic aggravation. And even those of us who recognize that we have a problem are put off by how frustratingly vague stress management techniques seem to be. We can’t just pop a pill and see immediate, measurable results; we have to change our habits and build new ones, practicing them every single day, until a gradual shift takes place. It’s hardly the kind of instant gratification we’ve come to expect.
Whether we acknowledge its presence in our lives or not, however, stress will take its toll, affecting us physically and psychologically in a variety of ways.
Before we look at these, however, it’s important to understand some essentials of the nervous system. First is the autonomic nervous system, which regulates life-sustaining functions such as our heartbeat, temperature, and respiration. Extending from the brain to all the major organs of the body, this nerve network has two major divisions — the sympathetic nervous system, which triggers the “flight or flight” response in times of perceived threat, and the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms the body down when the threat has passed — the “rest and digest” state. Unfortunately, our body has no way of differentiating true danger, such as a hungry tiger, from psychological danger, such as a being late for a job interview, and the same physiological responses are triggered in both instances.
Below are some of the major ways stress impacts the body.
An astounding 35 to 70% of people experience functional gastrointestinal disorders in their lifetime, and women more often than men. Despite having physical effects, like bloating, constipation, and abdominal pain, these disorders can’t be traced to physical causes. They are, however, directly impacted and exacerbated by stress. When we become stressed enough to activate the fight or flight response, the body directs all of its attention to dealing with the threat and away from nonessential functions — increasing heart rate and breathing, constricting blood vessels, and tightening muscles, but ceasing processes like digestion. After all, if we’re running from a tiger, our primary concern is hardly digesting the meal we just ate. Yet even mild levels of stress disrupt or slow down digestion. What’s worse, and somewhat ironically, the stress caused from gastrointestinal issues can in turn worsen their symptoms, resulting in an endless feedback loop of stress and discomfort.
Chronic stress also dampens the immune system, making us more prone to infections and slowing down wound healing — another nonessential function when faced with perceived mortal threats. Studies have shown, for instance, that people who report higher stress levels tend to stay longer in hospital after surgery and are more likely to experience infection-related complications, and be re-hospitalized in general, afterward. But overall and in general, stress leaves us vulnerable to illness.
When we’re hit by intense stress out of the blue, our muscles all tense up, all at once, releasing only once the threat has passed. Yet chronic, low level stress forces our muscles to be on guard all the time, anticipating the moment when they will need to spring into action and save us from danger. This can lead to both tension and migraine headaches, as well as chronic muscle tension and pain, particularly in the neck and shoulders. The more stressed we are, the more tense and constricted our muscles become, causing them to become fatigued and inefficient.
Chronic stress impacts us in many other ways as well, causing things like irritability and mood swings, insomnia, and chronic fatigue, and leading us to consume more food, alcohol, and other substances. It also keeps us overweight, due to the effect cortisol has on our waistline, along with the impaired digestion and unhealthy food cravings mentioned previously.
So now that we know just how bad stress is for our bodies and minds, what can we do to combat it?
Physical activity as a stress reducer has been studied extensively and is thought to be a highly effective way to manage stress. Exercise releases endorphins, chemicals in the brain that naturally relieve pain and boost mood, while simultaneously dampening the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. It also combats insomnia, one side effect of chronic stress, which in turn relieves the overall fatigue so common to the chronically stressed.
Exercise can also be highly social or deeply meditative depending on the type and where it’s performed. In either instance, it allows you to disconnect from technology, work, and other stressors, and focus instead on the present moment, providing your mind with much-needed relief from the constant barrage of stressful thoughts and responsibilities.
Meditation is another demonstrably potent stress management tool that activates the parasympathetic, or “rest and digest,” part of the nervous system. Anyone can do it and, contrary to popular belief, it’s not about stopping thoughts from happening — an impossible task (as anyone who has ever tried to not think of an elephant can attest). Rather, it’s about letting thoughts come and go without giving them our attention or passing judgment on them. We become the observer of our minds, learning to recognize that our thoughts do not form our core selves. They are simply thoughts, and we can choose to give them power or not.
Meditation has many forms and can take as long, or as little, as you like — even just a minute can make a difference. With a wealth of resources on the internet to get you started, learning to meditate has never been more accessible. One of the more popular resources is an app called Headspace, which features an array of guided and unguided meditations and visualization techniques, of varying lengths and for varying concerns, such as depression, anxiety, relationships, or self-esteem.
Whether or not you practice meditation or yoga, both of which employ the breath and help manage stress, simple breathing exercises can deescalate even the most stressful situations in moments, and they can be practiced at any time, anywhere. When we are stressed, our breath naturally becomes quick and shallow. Simply by slowing and deepening our breathing, we can activate the parasympathetic nervous system and modulate our stress, tricking the body into relaxing by mimicking what being relaxed feels like.
Try the following deep breathing exercise the next time you feel stressed:
1. Place one hand on the belly and one on the chest.
2. Take a slow, deep breath through the nose, allowing the belly to fully expand.
3. Hold the breath for a few seconds.
4. Release slowly through the mouth, thinking “relax.”
5. Repeat 5 to 10 times, whenever you feel stressed or periodically throughout the day.
Small Changes, Big Rewards
Chronic stress may be easy to ignore, but given the serious ramifications it has for your physical and emotional well-being, it deserves serious attention. By introducing these small measures into your life and practicing them daily, you will, over time, reap astonishing rewards. It’s worth the effort, and so are you.
What are some of your favorite stress management techniques? Have you had success with any of the above? Share in the comment section below!
Originally published at medium.com