I’m not sure if you were aware of it but it was recently International Stress Awareness Week (ok it was a couple of weeks ago.. this blog took a while to write :)). We all know that too much stress isn’t good for us but what actually is stress and how exactly does it affect our bodies in the short and long term?
Firstly, it is worth pointing out that stress isn’t actually a bad thing. No matter how hard we try to delude ourselves with the pretence of civilisation, at heart we are still primates. Our stress response has developed over millions of years and its sole purpose is to keep you alive. You may have heard of the term “fight or flight”; this is your stress response. If a lion were to walk into your work or front room right now, this instantaneous fight or flight response would give you the best chance of fighting the lion or running away from it. The problem with stress in modern society is that it’s not usually possible to run away from the cause of your stress; the “lions” we now face are money worries, traffic jams, deadlines and unsympathetic bosses. This means that, rather than being a short-term state, our bodies are in a heightened state of stress for weeks, months or even years.
So what happens to our bodies when we are in a state of stress?
Basically every bodily system that isn’t concerned with your immediate survival either slows or shuts down. Anything that isn’t about keeping you alive for the next few minutes isn’t important. These resources are diverted to systems that you will need to either run or fight.
When you feel threatened the adrenal glands release adrenalin and cortisol, which are the stress hormones. As they circulate through the body, it brings on a number of physical changes. The heart beats faster, pushing blood to the muscles, heart, and other vital organs. Pulse rate and blood pressure increases rapidly. Your breathing quickens. The lungs take in as much oxygen as possible with each breath. This extra oxygen is sent to the brain, increasing alertness. Sight and other senses become sharper. Meanwhile, adrenalin triggers the release of glucose and fats from storage sites in the body. These flood into the bloodstream, supplying energy to all parts of the body.
All of these changes happen so quickly that you aren’t even aware of them. In fact your fight or flight response occurs even before the brain’s visual centres have had a chance to fully process what is happening. That’s why people are able to jump out of the path of an oncoming car even before they think about what they are doing.
Alongside certain functions being enhanced to help increase the likelihood of survival, other bodily systems that are considered non-essential for your immediate survival are shut down. Digestion and immune systems shut down and peripheral vision and hearing are reduced. Blood flow is reduced to the outer areas of the body causing the face to go white. This redirected blood flow prevents initial major blood loss during potential trauma. Blood drains from the prefrontal cortex in the brain, so there’s no rational thought as the more primitive parts of the brain are focused purely on your survival and escape.
The above reactions to a perceived threat are vital and not damaging in the short term. However, the prolonged effect of lowered digestive function and immunity in combination with increased blood pressure and heart rate can lead to a whole host of serious health complications such as
• Heart disease
• High blood pressure
• Digestive issues I.e. IBS, Acid reflux, ulcerative colitis etc
• Depression and anxiety
• Obesity and eating disorders
• And countless more
So if you are struggling with stress and its effects what can you do?
Often it isn’t possible to change our circumstances. We would all choose a better work life balance or to avoid the stressful commute if we could. If you can’t change your circumstances then you need to make yourself more resilient to the effects of stress. Here are just a few simple tips that you can do that will make a huge difference to your stress levels and overall health
Mindfulness is similar to meditation but differs in that you are attempting to increase your awareness of your body and be more in the moment. We get so caught up in our thoughts and worries of the past or for the future that we aren’t fully present in the here and now. Often we don’t actually recognise when we have become tense or stressed as we are so caught up in our busy lives that we don’t stop and make time to notice how we are feeling. Being able to recognise when you are feeling any tension or stress gives you the ability to change it. Practising mindfulness for just 10 minutes a day can have huge benefits to your sense of wellbeing, sleep and stress levels.
Any movement can help. It doesn’t have to be intense exercise. Even just a short walk can help alter your perspective which may help you feel more in control and positive. If you can find a green space then even better. A walk in nature is a great way to reduce your stress levels. Regular exercise has been shown to be as effective at reducing depression and anxiety as medication.
Talk to someone.
Don’t suffer in silence. I’m not suggesting going as far as talking to a healthcare professional, although obviously that can help. Just the simple act of connecting with a friend or colleague and sharing how you feel can make a difference. Social health is as important as physical and mental health but is often overlooked. In a recent large scale study, the number of social interactions per day was shown to be a bigger indicator for health and longevity than either exercise or smoking. The benefit to health of improving your social connections can be the equivalent of giving up a 15 a day smoking habit. It really is that important.
Be kind to yourself
When we are stressed we can hold ourselves up to an incredibly high standard and judge ourselves very harshly. Our internal voice is many times more likely to be critical when we have done something wrong than to praise us when we have done something well. Life isn’t perfect and we shouldn’t expect ourselves to be either. Research has shown that people who can show self-compassion are able to cope with stressful situations much better than those who have a tendency to be overly critical of themselves.
Practising the above will mean that when you are going through a stressful period you will hopefully be more resilient and able to cope before the stress goes on to have a detrimental effect on your health.
If you are struggling with an issue, managing your pain can also help improve your sense of wellbeing and lower your stress. Feel free to either visit the clinic or give us a call and we will do our best to get you back to doing what you love, pain free as soon as possible.
Thanks for reading