Do you feel you need a break? Are your demands and deadlines at work causing you lack of sleep? Is it challenging for you to relax and calm down at the end of a long day?
Most people would answer yes to all three of these questions, because we live in a society that is very demanding and most of the time we have information overload and unrealistic expectations placed on us.
All of these symptoms may cause a state of mental or emotional strain identified as stress!
Firstly, let’s debunk one myth: “stress is a ‘bad’ thing.” That is wrong; stress is not necessarily a bad thing.
Without this brilliant ability to feel stress, humankind wouldn’t have survived. Our cavemen ancestors, for example, used the onset of stress to alert them to a potential danger, such as a saber-toothed tiger.
Stress is primarily a physical response. When stressed, the body thinks it is under attack and switches to ‘fight or flight’ mode, releasing a complex mix of hormones and chemicals such as adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine to prepare the body for physical action. This causes a number of reactions, from blood being diverted to muscles to shutting down unnecessary bodily functions such as digestion.
Many times we do not realize the physical cost of being under chronic stress. Chronic stress can cause a variety of symptoms and can affect your overall health and well-being.
Here are a few of the effects chronic stress can cause:
Central Nervous and Endocrine Systems
Your central nervous system (CNS) is in charge of your “fight or flight” response. The CNS instantly tells the rest of your body what to do, marshaling all resources to the cause. In the brain, the hypothalamus gets the ball rolling, telling your adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol.
When the perceived fear is gone, the CNS should tell all systems to go back to normal. It has done its job. If the CNS fails to return to normal, or if the stressor doesn’t go away, it takes a toll on your body.
Symptoms of chronic stress include irritability, anxiety, and depression. You may suffer from headaches or insomnia. Chronic stress is a factor in some behaviors like overeating or not eating enough, alcohol or drug abuse, or social withdrawal.
Respiratory and Cardiovascular Systems
Stress hormones affect your respiratory and cardiovascular systems. During the stress response, you breathe faster in an effort to distribute oxygen and blood quickly to your body core. If you have preexisting respiratory problems like asthma or emphysema, stress can make it harder to breathe.
Your heart also pumps faster. Stress hormones cause your blood vessels to constrict and raise your blood pressure. All that helps get oxygen to your brain and heart so you’ll have more strength and energy to take action.
Frequent or chronic stress makes your heart work too hard for too long, raising your risk of hypertension and problems with your blood vessels and heart. You’re at higher risk of having a stroke or heart attack.
The female hormone estrogen offers pre-menopausal women some protection from stress-related heart disease.
Under stress, your liver produces extra blood sugar (glucose) to give you a boost of energy. Unused blood sugar is reabsorbed by the body. If you’re under chronic stress, your body may not be able to keep up with this extra glucose surge, and you may be at an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
The rush of hormones, rapid breathing, and increased heart rate can upset your digestive system. You’re more likely to have heartburn or acid reflux. Stress doesn’t cause ulcers — a bacterium called H. pylori does — but stress may cause existing ulcers to act up.
You might experience nausea, vomiting, or a stomachache. Stress can affect the way food moves through your body, leading to diarrhea or constipation.
Under stress, your muscles tense up to protect themselves from injury. You’ve probably felt your muscles tighten up and release again once you relax. If you’re constantly under stress, your muscles don’t get the chance to relax. Tight muscles cause headaches, back and shoulder pain, and body aches. Over time, you may stop exercising and turn to pain medication, setting off an unhealthy cycle.
Sexuality and Reproductive System
Stress is exhausting for the body and for the mind. It’s not unusual to lose your desire for sex when you’re under chronic stress. However, men may produce more of the male hormone testosterone during stress, which may increase sexual arousal in the short term.
For women, stress can affect the menstrual cycle. You might have irregular or no menstruation, or heavier and more painful periods. The physical symptoms of menopause may be magnified under chronic stress.
If stress continues for a long time, a man’s testosterone levels begin to drop. That can interfere with sperm production and cause erectile dysfunction or impotence. Chronic stress may make the urethra, prostate, and testes more prone to infection.
Stress stimulates the immune system. In the short term, that’s a bonus. It helps you stave off infection and heal wounds. Over time, cortisol compromises your immune system, inhibiting histamine secretion and inflammatory response to foreign invaders. People under chronic stress are more susceptible to viral illnesses like influenza and the common cold. It increases risk of other opportunistic diseases and infections. It can also increase the time it takes to recover from illness or injury.
So what can you do to help cope or minimize stress?
We have a list of 18 Strategies you can use today:
Cut your to-do list in half. How? Ask yourself this question after every item: Will I die tomorrow if this doesn’t get accomplished? I’m guessing you’ll get a lot of no’s.
Let’s say you’ve got five huge work projects due next week, two Cub Scout commitments you promised your son, your mom’s overdue taxes on your desk, your wife’s 40th birthday celebration to plan, and your sister’s computer to fix. What do you do? You record all the tasks on a sheet of paper or on your computer and you give each one a number between 1 and 10: 10 being the most important (life threatening) to one (stupid bloody thing I signed up for). Start with the 10s. If you never get beyond the 8s, that’s okay!
- Use pencil, not pen.
If you rely on your to-do list as much as I do, then you’ll want to start using pencil instead of pen. Because one important stress buster is to try to stay as flexible as you can. Things change!
- Give away your cape.
If you haven’t already guessed by now, you are not a superpower and don’t possess supernatural qualities and capabilities. I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to join the race … the human race. Which means surrendering to limitations and conditions–like the number of hours in a day (24) and the amount of time it takes to get from point A to point B. In your car. Not in your bat mobile.
- Collaborate and cooperate.
There are lots of people out there with to-do lists that look very similar to yours. Why not let them do some of your tasks so that you all don’t have to do them?
Just as chronic and severe stress can damage organic systems in our body, humor can heal.
Exercise relieves stress in several ways. First, cardiovascular workouts stimulate brain chemicals that foster growth of nerve cells. Second, exercise increases the activity of serotonin in and/or norepinephrine. Third, a raised heart rate releases endorphins and a hormone known as ANP, which reduces pain, induces euphoria, and helps control the brain’s response to stress and anxiety.
- Stop juggling.
I realize some multi-tasking is inevitable in our rushed culture. But do we really have to simultaneously cook dinner, talk to Mom, help with homework, and check e-mail? If you were an excellent waiter or waitress in your past or present, then skip this one.
- Build boundaries.
Speaking of activities, get some boundaries, ASAP–meaning designate a place and time for certain things so that your brain doesn’t have to wear so many hats at the same time.
- Think globally.
I don’t say this to induce a guilt trip. No, no, no. Because guilt trips compound stress. What I mean here is a simple reminder that compared to other problems in our world today–abject poverty in Somalia or Cambodia–the things that we stress about are pretty minor. Put another way: Don’t sweat the small stuff, and most of it is small stuff.
- Avoid stimulants and sugar.
Here’s the catch-22: the more stressed you get, the more you crave coffee and doughnuts, pizza and Coke. But the more coffee, Coke, doughnuts, and pizza in your system, the more stressed you get. It’s not your imagination.
- Compare and despair.
The last thing you should do when you’re stressed–which I always do when I’m stressed–is start looking around at other people’s package (job, family support, balanced brain) and pine for some of that. Comparing my insides to someone else’s outsides is a fruitless and dangerous game to play, especially when I’m stressed.
- Avoid negative people.
Once the negativity is out there, it’s up to you to tell your brain not to dwell on it. And, well, if you’re like me, that cognitive exchange demands a lot of energy. Best to choose your friends carefully and avoid the toxic conversations as much as you can.
Everything breaks down when you don’t sleep well. Any sleep disturbance will diminish mental performance. Stress affects sleep and vice versa. Researchers at Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine compared patients with insomnia to those without sleep disruptions and found that the insomniacs with the most severe sleep disturbances secreted the highest amount of cortisol.
- Categorize your problems.
If you lump your problems into categories, you will feel like you have less obstacles. I spend some time doing this in therapy every other week. Because to solve each and every hiccup is too overwhelming.
- Lower your standards.
Fire the perfectionist in your head who won’t accept anything less from you than a five-star performance. She could single-handedly cause a lot of stress.
- Just say no.
If you haven’t yet learned how to politely decline offers to head the next school fundraiser, it’s time you stand in front of a mirror and practice. Repeat after me: “Mr. X, I am so flattered by the invitation to serve on your committee. But I just simply can’t do it at this time.”
- Learn how to recharge.
Know your rechargers and do them routinely.
If you need help managing your stress take advantage of our Free Consultation and we can help develop a health and wellness strategy to reduce your stress.
Have a stress free day!
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