Most people now understand that they need to eat better and move their bodies, but when I have the stress talk with clients, they often brush it aside. I know the effects of chronic stress myself. Looking back, I realize that when we were still living in the Bay Area, I lived in a state of heightened stress for a couple of years. My husband and I had crazy jobs with long hours, hour-long commutes in stop-and-go traffic, our rent was increasing by 10% every year with nowhere else to go, and then the passing of a loved one during that same time.
I remember being pretty unhappy during that time. I was eating right and I was exercising; however, I was having problems and it felt like my body was breaking down. I didn’t understand it at the time, but now I am putting two and two together: I was living in chronic stress.
So what is stress?
It’s a normal reaction in your body to ‘exciting events’ – positive and negative. For example, falling in love or buying a house can be positive stress events; and being stressed out over being in debt, for example, would be a negative stress event.
Stress also kicks in when you’re in a situation where your survival is at stake. For example, if you’re getting chased by a dog or you’re in an accident. Your body enters a state of ‘fight or flight’ – you’ve probably heard that – so you can face the situation or run away as fast as possible to avoid the impending danger. It’s important to note that your body doesn’t distinguish between a bear attack and a car accident or stress from work-induced anxiety. Internally, it all looks the same.
When there is a real emergency, the stress response is great (and necessary), because it will mobilize you to get out of this situation; however, when your stress response continues to get triggered over something like work or because you are constantly ripping and running, you will burn out over time.
What happens inside your body when you’re stressed?
There are 3 stages your body goes through when it is stressed.
1) The Alarm Stage
When a stress event happens, your Sympathetic Nervous System gets triggered to protect you. The adrenal glands secrete cortisol and adrenaline, and the rest of the body is ‘alerted.’ There is an increase in your pulse, in blood pressure, in blood sugar, and blood fats. You might start to sweat, your pupils dilate and your breathing will speed up. The body is preparing you for Fight or Flight.
Have you felt this stage in your body? All of a sudden your heart is racing, maybe you feel flushed? I know I have.
2) Adaptive or Resistance Stage
After the stress event is dealt with, your body will try to return to normal (what we call homeostasis – balance). However, if the stress reaction is very high or continues to get triggered, your body will remain on high alert. As a result, your body becomes resistant and stress hormones continue to get triggered. This extended release of cortisol and adrenaline can result in the following:
- Mood issues, including depression and anger
- Lack of energy and sleep issues
- Increase in blood pressure and heart rate; and higher blood sugar and cholesterol levels
- Increase in fat storage, especially around the midsection
- Your immune system is not as effective anymore in fighting and recovering from illness
- Digestive issues such as stomach cramps, reflux and nausea
- Loss of libido, absent or irregular cycles for women and lower sperm production for men
- Lower bone density
- Aches and pains in the body
3) And that is the third stage then which is the Exhaustion Stage
The body doesn’t return to balance anymore – meaning a rest state. We continue to feel wired. Our emergency resources are depleted and we burn out. We cannot keep up.
Just going over the list of changes in the body with higher levels of blood sugar, increased fat around the midsection, etc. it’s easy to see how being chronically stressed can contribute to an illness like prediabetes.
What you can do to relieve stress
The great thing is that there are so many different ways to help you reduce stress. We are all different and enjoy different things. Here is a list to consider:
- Breathing exercises
- Yoga or tai chi
- Massage therapy
- Using a sauna
- Being outside in nature
- Visiting a museum
- Social activities – getting together with others in a positive way
When you relax, the Parasympathetic Nervous System gets turned on which is all about conserving energy, resting and digesting. Digestion gets turned off when we’re stressed, so no wonder extra pounds will stick to our ribs.
So try a few of the suggestions I made, and then do them every day. It doesn’t have to take long either. Consistency is the key. Relaxing is just as important as eating right, exercising and sleeping. If you would like to try meditation or breathing exercises which are simple and don’t cost anything, I recommend a free app called Insight Timer. I use it every day.