6 ways to reduce stress and the pains it causes
When we stop and think about what can mentally challenge us or send us into a rage at the drop of a hat, we typically think of that nasty 6 letter word than begins with an “S”.
Stress, according to the late Dr. Hans Selye, a pioneering Austrian-Canadian endocrinologist and early guru on stress 1960s-70s, is the non-specific response of the body to any demand made upon it. “It’s not stress that kills us, it’s our reaction to it.”
Stress is the body’s physical, mental or chemical reaction to a stimulus or stressor. If daily demands are easy and well-balanced, we’re fine. It’s when we decide the pressure is unreasonable or the situation is upsetting, that the potential for damage occurs.
Depending on our demographics, background, relationships, careers and age, there are an unlimited number of things that can send us into a stress response. Since cave men and women roamed the earth, there has been stress. When danger lurked, or a fight ensued, they were in a state of physical provocation and readiness to go into battle or run when needed. If it weren’t for our natural stress responses, humans would not have survived long; we’d have been taken down by a mammoth or eaten by a sabre tooth tiger early on in our evolution. But today, our lives and demands have changed so we call stress different things. We give it labels like tension, pressure from work or “it’s complicated” on our relationship status on Facebook, but stress has always been there.
Now generally this is the big pill to swallow in regard to stress: no one else can give you stress, you to react to something and allow yourself to become stressed. It takes some time to get used to the idea that being stressed-out is in fact a choice. Once your initial reaction takes place, you can choose to accept the stress and feel overwrought for the next several minutes or, you can practice stress management and become calm.
While our modern day stress has evolved from walking 10 miles day to find and hunt food to work emails, notifications from our phones, our bodies haven’t really evolved in a reasonable manner. There are no tigers chasing us today, yet we are still wired as if there were.
What happens in your body when you are stressed?
The body over-reacts to demands made on it and the stress cascade begins. First we have our stimulus: TIGER. Now we’re in our fight or flight response to the stress in front of us. This is all part of our sympathetic nervous system.
-Right off the bat, in a matter of seconds, the adrenal glands release adrenaline and norepinephrine. These are the precursors to several other processes that need to happen to keep you alert, focused and reactive.
-Next, only a few moments later, your adrenal glands release cortisol which is a steroid hormone. Cortisol is responsible for a number of things including pressure and fluid regulation and cellular repair.
-Because immediately, your cardiac output increases to pump more blood, you also get vasoconstriction which also raises your blood pressure and heart rate. This is the garden hose theory. When you turn on the hose and place your thumb over the nozzle to narrow the opening, the pressure of the water flowing out increases, same as your arteries. We need your blood to do the same thing, because now you have to run from this tiger. We need to pump your blood to every corner of your body to circulate these stress hormones, nutrients and oxygen as fast as we can so your body can use them immediately to either fight this tiger or run from it.
-Your body also releases more cholesterol and fibrinogen into the blood stream in case you come out of this situation with a wound, your body can clot and try to stop the bleeding faster.
-Your body also switches to a catabolic state, meaning it’s breaking down your energy stores to give you more fuel.
-So naturally, your anabolic processes turn off. These store and replenish energy, repairs damaged cells, basically your rest and digest processes. There’s no time for things like regrowth and repair because that requires too much of your body’s available energy.
-For the same reason, your immune system shuts off. That’s why when you get a cold or the flu, you’re tired all the time. Your immune system is hard at work trying to fight off whatever bacteria you’ve picked up along the way.
-The brain’s centre for learning and memory are also suppressed and those brains cells responsible for this even shrink! With a tiger licking its chops there’s obviously no time to learn French.
-Your basic, primitive senses become heightened. Your pupils dilate to let in more light so you can see better, the tiny little hairs in your ears become more active and sensitive to vibration so you can hear better ensuring you are alert and anticipating an attack. (SIDENOTE: This heightened sensory state from stress is exactly the same state children with ADHD experience every single day).
All of these occur in the body, without you thinking about it, in only a matter of minutes. Now, maybe instead of the immediate threat of a tiger, you’re sitting in car behind grandma enjoying her Sunday drive in the left lane and you’re running late to your favourite store because it’s Sunday and they close early. You try to pass but the car next to grandma is going the same speed. Your heart is racing, you’re cursing under your breath, or maybe not so silently, you’re gripping the wheel and you’re palms are starting to get sweaty. Then thank the good Heavens, she finally turns off and you’re free to barrel down the road and get to where you’re going. Only, you’re still fuming, even twenty minutes later. The immediate stressor is gone now buying groceries, but you’re still flying down the road a little too fast with your head still spinning.
This is the issue. This is that moment where you take a beat, realize how silly it was to get worked up in the first place and put your stress management skills to work and calm yourself down.
What happens when you don’t?
Chronic stress allows the stress cascade to repeat over and over. Your cortisol stays high which causes imbalances in your hormones and leads to weight gain, blood pressure remains high which leads to heart disease, your catabolic metabolism stays active increasing your blood glucose which can make you insulin resistant (diabetic), your anabolic metabolism that restores cellular health and promotes neuromuscular growth is shut off, your immune system shuts off making you an easy target for increased allergies and colds, your higher brain function is low which makes it difficult to focus and shortens your memory, this eventually will lead to neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Dementia, and finally, your senses are heightened which makes you irritable and exhausted all the time.
This is exactly how much of the population is walking around right now. Far too many of us suffer from things like:
- heart disease
- chronic fatigue
- anxiety attacks
- mood swings
- psychological distress
- sleep problems
- high blood pressure
- eating disorders
- peptic ulcers
- poor immune function
- chronic pain
- chronic viruses
- smoking-related respiratory aliments
Medical research is seeing a direct link between diseases and stress. Some estimates say 40 - 80% of all visits to doctors may be directly related to stress. Ask yourself, where do you fit in this picture? Do you have illnesses or conditions brought on by stress or made worse by it?
How stressed are you and where is it coming from?
The first step to honing in your stress management skills is figuring out what stresses you and how badly. Do some homework and self-searching and figure out the when/where/why of your stress to better arm yourself to calm down when it occurs. Put a check mark beside each of the following symptoms of stress that you have experienced in the past 2 weeks.
Numbness in limbs
Upper chest pain
Loss of libido
Drinking too much
Smoking too much
Sweating a lot
Chewing on nails
Not able to settle
No get up & go
Run down, sick more
Eating too much
Now break each symptom down and try to identify when you may be experiencing each one and what incident may have started it. Depending on your location, you start adding breathing exercises, meditation, journaling, or recollection therapy to help calm yourself when you feel yourself becoming stressed.
The good news about our amazing bodies is that once we identify the stressors and make some definite life style changes, we can often reverse a lot of the damage.
Try these ideas:
- Walk with a friend
- Join a gym with a variety of classes, activities, intramural sports teams
- Try yoga or Tai Chi
- Dance, dance, dance
- Buy an exercise video for home
- Belly breathing techniques
- Listening to music
- Meditation (1 minute to 45 minutes)
- Singing one of your favorite songs in your head (the 3-4 minute song should give you plenty of time to calm down
- Spend a few quite moments looking at your favorite picture, piece if art or scenic view from your office
- Learn to say “no”
Depending on the long-term impact of whatever’s stressing you out and how you personally handle stress, it could take anywhere from half an hour to a couple of days to return to your normal resting state. Practice makes perfect and repetition is key to making those long-last effects.
Remove your stress by moving your body!
Researchers at Duke University Medical Centre in North Carolina found 16 weeks on a regular 30 minute, 3 times weekly aerobic program is extremely effective in reducing stress. Their research shows exercise can be as effective as drug therapy in treating depression too. We’ve all heard the coined term “runners’ high” where endorphins, chemicals produced in the brain, flows when you exercise. These are happy brain chemicals! Exercise also rids the body of by-products of stress, such as adrenaline. And because exercise helps reduce fatigue, exercise increases the body’s capacity to cope with stress. Yoga is one of the best forms of exercise that is good for the mind while improving strength, flexibility and circulation, while also being highly relaxing.
The big thing to keep in mind about stress, is the bigger picture. Your stress may seem trivial and small now, but keep in mind the long-term, damaging effects it has on your body and brain! It takes several months to create a new habit and truly notice the full effects of one. So make small changes often and they will add up. Your health is in your hands! Take responsibility for your longevity.
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