Stress & Your Health

Stress is a fact of life. According to Hans Selye, a pioneer in stress research, stress is "the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change" 1.

stress & your health

When you are under stress, the sympathetic nervous system is activated causing your heart rate to increase, which pushes more blood to the muscles, heart, and other important organs.  Your blood pressure goes up, you pupils dilate so that you can see better, your hearing becomes sharper, your muscle strength increases, and the lungs take in as much oxygen as possible.  Additionally, nutrients flood into your blood stream to insure that you have more energy. This culminates with the sympathetic nervous system slowing down everything that is not 100% needed for survival, such as liver, gall bladder, and kidney functions. 

Chronic and unrelenting stress causes the body to stay on high-alert, and the sympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive, like a car engine when the gas pedal is stuck.  High amounts of cortisol, also known as “stress hormone,” are released by the adrenal glands, causing the immune system to be suppressed. High cortisol level also causes disruption in sleep, anxiety, depression, weight gain, headaches, heart problems and digestive problems, among other things.

It goes without saying that this type of stress has a tremendous impact on your health and well-being. So much so that 75% to 90% of doctor visits are for stress-related issues 2. And these issues can lead to even more stress and chronic conditions, dramatically complicating everything.

The truth is that, by itself, stress is not much of an issue--as noted by Hans Selye, the actual issue is how you react to stress. The good news is that you can learn how to manage your reaction, and you may also be able to get rid of some stressors. Interestingly enough, though, usually the first thing that goes out the window when you get too busy and stressed are activities and habits that makes you less stressed.  Can you relate to that? But if you do invest time to manage your stress, you will not only achieve peace of mind, but you’ll also have a healthier and happier life. 

Some strategies to manage your stress are:

  • See how you are contributing to your own stress – Becoming more aware of your stressors can help you decide how you can eliminate any of them and/or cope with them more affectively. What are your top 10 stressors? Which one can be eliminated? Quite often your self-talk is very loud and you judge and criticize yourself, which reinforces negative beliefs and increases stress. Being aware and changing your self-talk can shift things dramatically. Taking a mental break and stepping away from the problem at hand, for example, can help you put things in perspective. You can do that by going out for a short walk, focusing in your breathing, listening to music, etc.
  • Make time for yourself – this may sound difficult if you have a busy life. But how true is that you don’t have time? What can you do more efficiently? What can you delegate? A good way to find out is to create a chart where you log your daily activities and the time spent on each activity for a few days or weeks, and then decide what you can change—this is a great tool to help you see where you have free time and also helps you become more efficient.
  • Consider your lifestyle – it is a well-known fact that lifestyle can have a considerable impact on your health and well-being, as well as how you manage stress. Many health conditions can be addressed and resolved with some lifestyle changes such as adding physical activity and exercise to your life, proper nutrition and healthy eating, self-awareness, and support from family and friends.
  • Get enough physical activity - The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends 2.5 hours per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity3. That breaks down to only 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week, or you can do 10 minutes of moderate or vigorous activity at a time. All movement counts, so explore activities you find enjoyable like walking, riding your bike, taking dance classes, to name a few. Add resistance work 2 days per week (also a CDC recommendation) once you feel comfortable with whatever exercise routine you come up with. Exercise will make your immune system stronger, reduce the chances of developing chronic diseases, and lessen anxiety and depression. It will also increase your brain functions.
  • Get plenty of sleep – The National Sleep Foundation recommends 7 to 9 hours of sleep for adults between 26 to 64 years old, although they say that 6 hours may be appropriate4. Sleep is the time for us to recharge our batteries, both physically and mentally. As energy increases, we become more resilient and focused, leading to increased creativity, memory, and an improved sense of well-being.
  • Use mind-body techniques – Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, getting a massage, yoga, or meditation, can do wonders for your stress level. They will improve your concentration, help you calm down, and improve your overall well-being. With practice, you will learn how to apply some of those techniques (i.e.: meditation, deep breathing) in “real time,” or in the heat of the moment, so that you can chose how to respond, rather than just react.

How is stress affecting your life? Please take the Quick Stress Self-Test to find out.

1. What is Stress? The American Institute of Stress.
2. America’s #1 Health Problem. The American Institute of Stress.
3. How much physical activity do adults need? The Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
4. National Sleep Foundation Recommends New Sleep Times. National Sleep Foundation.