Stress can be defined as “the body’s reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response.” While feeling stressed has certain protective roles, too much stress can also do scary things to our health.
What are some common experiences or thought patterns that can cause the body to feel stress, including some that you might never have associated with stress before? Things like financial pressure, a lack of sleep, emotional problems in your relationships, overtraining or doing too much exercise, and even dieting can all send signals to the body that it’s under stress.
Stress can either be perceived as feeling good/positive or bad/negative depending on the context, and the body reacts differently to both kinds.
However, where the body isn’t so clever is distinguishing between very serious threats (like being robbed or starved) and events that are stressful but not actually life-threatening. Unfortunately, whether a problem is very serious or not, the body usually has no way of knowing the difference− — anything that causes you to worry, anticipate, regret, overthink or panic can send your stress levels through the roof.
Stress can result from changes in your lifestyle (like your diet, exercise routine or a lack of sleep), your environment (a new job or a move) or even simply recurring negative thoughts.
In many ways, stress, even the “good kind of stress,” has an immediate and noticeable effect on the body. For example, have you ever noticed you lose your appetite when you’re anxious or excited, your palms sweat when you’re nervous, or you can’t seem to sleep the night before a big meeting at work or a date you care a lot about?
But below the surface, stress also manifests in the body in multiple ways you can’t always feel: increasing levels of “stress hormones” like cortisol, causing blood sugar levels to rise, altering your appetite, getting in the way of normal digestion by changing the gut environment, and affecting the way our thyroid glands and hormones works.
Dozens of studies have shown that chronic stress is related to health conditions and stress symptoms, including:
- tension headache
- fatigue (including chronic or adrenal fatigue)
- high blood pressure
- heart disease
- acne and other skin conditions
- allergies and asthma
- depression and anxiety
- autoimmune disorders
- sleep disorders
- eating disorders
One of the most well-known effects of stress is that it increases cortisol levels. Not surprisingly, the brain is the central player in terms feeling stress inside in the body. The brain first processes your thought patterns and then changes messages sent to various hormonal glands, the heart, the gut and elsewhere.
The brain (specifically the hippocampus) determines which feelings or events in your life are threatening, possibly helpful or damaging, and then sends signals to the cardiovascular, immune, and digestive systems via neural and endocrine mechanisms.
Cortisol is the principle hormone (although not the only hormone) tied to our innate “flight-or-fight” response, which is how the body reacts to acute stress by either helping us run from the situation or stick around and fight our way through. When short spikes in cortisol/adrenaline happen over and over again nearly every day, they cause wear and tear on the body and speed up the aging process.
So should the goal be to avoid any and all sorts of stress? Of course not — remember that some types of stress are useful and considered “adaptive,” while others are “maladaptive.”
For example, exercise and perusing a goal very ambitiously are both types of stress, except they ultimately benefit the body. Areas of the brain, including the hippocampus, amygdala and prefrontal cortex can pick up on positive stressful experiences and cause “stress-induced structural remodeling” of the brain, which means you experience alterations in behavioral and physiological responses to these positive events. The result is that in the future you’re better able to handle similar situations because you learn from them, associate them with a reward and stop perceiving them as threatening.
Takeaways on Stress Relievers and Stress Relief
Stress is an unavoidable part of life. Everyone deals with it, and certain types of stress are even good for your health. However, chronic, negative stress than really impair your physical and mental well-being.
That’s why it’s so important to find the proper stress relievers to maintain a strong quality of life. The eight stress relievers above — exercise and yoga, meditation/healing prayer, acupuncture, a nutrient-dense diet, cognitive behavioral therapy, spending more time in nature and being social, keeping a journal and using adaptogen herbs and essential oils — can help you maintain a good mood, remain calm and better handle your day-to-day stress.
And when you do that, you’re entire body, along with you mind, benefits, leading you to an even better, more well-rounded life.