We’ve all experienced stress in our lives, when the unexpected happens and we can’t control it! That’s when our brains decide to send out stress hormones - the hormones which trigger our ‘fight or flight’ response. This can cause heart racing, quicker breathing and tense muscles. Our stress responses are designed to protect you in an emergency by getting your body ready to react quickly. But, when our stress responses are triggered too often, it can cause some serious health problems.
Stress is natural and is the body and minds way to react to life experiences - it happens to everyone! Work, family issues, everyday responsibilities, and life events can all trigger stress. In small, short-term situations, stress can actually help you. It can help you cope with serious situations. However, if your stress response does not stop and your stress levels stay elevated, it can take a toll on your body. Chronic stress is serious and can cause things like anxiety, depression, insomnia, and headaches. But it can also affect other areas of the body.
Your central nervous system is in charge of this flight or fight response. In your brain, the hypothalamus starts the stress response, signalling to your adrenal glands to release stress hormones - adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones can increase your heartbeat and send blood to the areas of your body that need it the most in an emergency - muscles, heart and other important organs. When the stress inducing thing has passed, your hypothalamus should signal systems to go back to normal. But with Chronic stress, these levels don’t go back to normal.
Stress can also affect your respiratory and cardiovascular systems. When you're feeling stressed, you usually breathe a lot faster - breathing distributes oxygen to your body. If this happens for too long, it can make it harder to breathe, especially if you suffer from things like asthma. Also, when you are under stress, your heart does pump blood faster. Stress hormones can cause blood vessels to constrict, moving oxygen to your muscles so you can take action - but this can raise blood pressure, increasing the risk of stroke or a heart attack.
Your digestive system is also affected by stress. When you experience stress, your liver produces more glucose to give you energy to respond. Chronic stress might mean your body can’t deal with the increase in glucose - increasing the risk of type 2 diabetes. This combined with a rush of hormones, increased breathing and increased heart rate can also cause things like heartburn and acid reflux - as well as increasing your risk of stomach ulcers. This can lead to nausea, vomiting and stomach ache.
Your muscles can tense up when the stress response is activated, and if you are constantly under stress, your muscles won’t get much of a chance to relax. Muscle tension can lead to symptoms like body aching, headaches, and neck pain, which can be hard to navigate your daily life around.
It’s needless to say that stress is exhausting for both the body and the mind. It’s normal to lose sexual desire when you're under stress. Actually, short-term stress can increase testosterone. However, if stress continues, your testosterone levels begin to drop. For men, this means issues with sperm production and impotence. It can also increase the risk of infection to the prostate. For women, stress hormones can mess with their menstrual cycle. You can experience issues with heavier, or irregular periods - and if you’re going through menopause it can increase the negative symptoms.
Finally, stress can stimulate your immune system. In the short term, stimulation can help you to avoid things like infections, and also help to heal any wounds. But, over a long period of time, stress can weaken your immune system and hinder your body's response to infections. If you suffer from chronic stress, you can be more susceptible to illnesses like colds, and increase the time it takes you to recover!
So, how do we reduce stress and avoid these health complications?
There are a few things that can help to reduce stress and recover quickly.
Deep breathing can help to calm the stress response. And the great thing about deep breathing is that you can do it anywhere - at work, on your commute, at home. Try to relax a specific muscle group while you breathe out. It's good to start from the top down, so focus on your jaw to start, then your shoulders, and so on until you feel calm.
Mindfulness can also help with stress. When you feel stressed, you're probably thinking about things in the past, or things in the future. Stress relief can be as easy as thinking about what you’re doing right now. Think about the sensations in your body, or what you can see, smell or feel.
Another great stress relief is to reframe things. Getting worked up usually doesn't help you at all - it can be helpful to think about a different perspective, as well as thinking about all the things that are going well in your life.
Finally - regular exercise can help to reduce your stress response. Endorphins are boosted when we work out, which can help to reduce overall stress and make you feel happier and calmer overall.
By Amy Cavill
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