There are two forms of stress—the good and the bad. Good stress is body-rushing and at times thrilling like strapping on a snowboard and hitting the slopes for the first time. And then there’s the bad stress—the kind that really does a number on our minds, body and overall health. We all know how bad it is for us, but do we really and truly know how stress affects our bodies?
Let’s take a look at the body as a whole and get an idea of what’s happening when stress makes its appearance starting from the top:
- Central Nervous & Endocrine Systems (CNS): This system is solely responsible for your “fight or flight” response when stress makes its initial appearance, thanks to the hypothalamus in your brain. When the hypothalamus gets stimulated, a sequence of nerve cells fire and chemical reactions like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol get released into our bloodstream. As these chemicals get released, the body undergoes a series of dramatic, physical effects:
- increased heart rate
- Blood is redirected away from the digestive track and pushed towards our muscles and limbs (forcing them to require more energy)
- pupils dilate and sight becomes sharpened
- intensified awareness and quickened impulses
- Respiratory & Cardiovascular Systems: Now that the CNS has been activated, you’re breathing faster and your heart is pumping at a quicker rate. Blood vessels are constricting, blood pressure is rising, thus causing your heart to work harder and faster.
- Digestive System: Your liver is now producing glucose (blood sugar) to help increase your energy level and your digestive system has been activated due to increased blood pressure and heart rate.
- Muscular System: To protect you from injury, your muscles are tensing due to this chain reaction of nerve cells firing.
- Immune System: With the onset of stress, the immune system gets an instant boost. Adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol are continuing to surge through your system to help ward off infection.
Now let’s take a look at how an overabundance of stress affects these areas of your body:
- Your CNS begins to experience depression, anxiety and irritability.
- You begin to experience frequent headaches.
- You’re prone to partake in overeating (or not eating enough), social withdrawals and substance abuse.
- Your respiratory and cardiovascular systems begin to really take a hit due to your heart working harder, faster and longer. You’re now more prone to having a heart attack, high risk of developing hypertension, or worse, a stroke.
- Your digestive system is producing excess glucose, thus increasing your susceptibility to develop Type 2 Diabetes.
- You are likely to experience heartburn, acid reflux, nausea, vomiting, stomach pains, constipation or worse, diarrhea.
- Your muscles are in a constant state of tension, thus causing headaches, shoulder, back and overall body aches and pain.
- Your sex drive can easily decrease. Men’s testosterone levels can drop causing erectile dysfunction and impotence. Women can experience a change in their menstrual cycles like absent periods, intense cramps, and heavier and longer cycles.
- And lastly, since your immune system is working overtime, you’re likely to become ill and have trouble overcoming infections in a timely manner.
Do any of these symptoms and/or conditions sound familiar? If the answer is yes, then let’s take a look at the three types of stress and help you determine what you’re experiencing.
Type of Stress: Acute
This is the most common type of stress. It’s the everyday routine and woes-of-daily-life kind of stress. Your body can immediately detect it and your brain kicks into high gear instantaneously to help you combat and push through it. With that kind of stress comes the most common symptoms of emotional distress. What is emotional distress? It is a combination of the three stress emotions—anger/irritability, anxiety and depression. Even though acute stress doesn’t have enough time to really do extensive damage, like those associated with long-term stress, it is controllable, treatable and completely manageable. You just need to know the physical signs. They include:
- Tension headaches, migraine headaches, back pain, jaw pain and overall full-body muscular tension that can lead to ligament and tendon issues and strain.
- Quick to anger, trouble sleeping, heightened levels of anxiety and irritability.
- Increase in blood pressure, rapid heartbeat/heart palpitations, and shortness of breath and chest pain.
- Stomach and bowel issues including flatulence, diarrhea, constipation, heartburn, and can lead to Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
Type of Stress: Episodic
This is when acute stress happens on a more frequent basis. It is ongoing stress that is either not being addressed or is difficult to completely eliminate. It is most likely due to the fact that the person experiencing it is continuously making unrealistic or unreasonable demands and choices. Guess who experiences episodic stress on a regular basis? Type A personalities. In addition to all the symptoms mentioned above in acute stress, you’re most likely to experience:
- Longer intervals of intermitted depressions, anxiety and emotional distress and ceaseless worrying.
- Either on the verge of or are currently experiencing coronary heart diseases/problems.
Type of Stress: Chronic
In a nutshell, this is the stress that just never goes away. You wake up stressed, you fall asleep stressed, and the likelihood of you having “stressful” dreams is a given. By far, this is the most severe, life damaging and devastating to your health. For those suffering from chronic stress, the symptoms and signs (in addition to what is being experienced in acute and episodic) are:
- Constant dry mouth & difficulty breathing.
- Heart palpitations and frequent pounding.
- Diaphoresis (continuous sweating).
- Frequent urination.
- Inability to concentrate and focus.
- Difficulty in sleeping.
- Constant fatigue.
- Narrowed perception.
Based on the varying types and degrees of stress, and knowing how stress affects your body, it’s important we all develop stress-relieving tactics to perform on a routine basis so that acute stress doesn’t become chronic. Consider these six quick techniques:
- Take some deep, lung-filling breaths that will help your body absorb oxygen and aid in calming your overall mood. Breathe in through your nose, hold your breath and count to seven, and then exhale counting to eight.
- Discover aromatherapy and essential oils. There is a multitude of scents that can instantly calm and help you de-stress. Take for instance lavender. It is known to help lower your heart rate and decrease blood pressure.
- Change your routine. If your everyday-to-day procedures and lifestyle is making you completely stressed out, then change it up!
- Explore the idea of meditation and practice it either in the morning or at night before you go to bed (or both!).
- If your work is what is stressing you out on a regular basis, then let’s leave work at…work. Stop checking your emails after you leave work (or less often), don’t respond to work-related messages and texts after work, and most importantly, leave work issues at the door before you walk into your home.
- Get lost in a book. Not a movie, not a television show, but a good ol’ novel of some kind. Your mind has to focus on reading and when it is concentrating on the words and the story then it doesn’t have time to think about anything else.
By relieving stress and being aware on how stress affects your body, you can quickly recognize and be continuously aware of how what around you is affecting what’s inside you. You owe it to yourself to live a happy, healthy stress-free life.