Understanding Stress: Its Effects on Your Body and Ways to Manage It

Posted at 1:43 PM on Mar 7, 2024

Northwest Family Clinic – Understanding Stress

We are all human and will undoubtedly experience stress in life. While stress is normal, the problem is our lives have become more stressful than ever, leaving many of us in a constant state of fight or flight, which is not good for our overall health.

The good news is you do not have to be under a constant state of stress. Understanding its effects on the body and adopting effective coping strategies can significantly improve your well-being.

How Stress Affects Your Body

Stress is your body's response to any demand or threat. This could be a lion stalking you or your boss saying, “We need to talk.” While the lion has the potential to be deadly and our boss may just want to talk about the upcoming Christmas party, the response on the body is the same. Our body responds with a complex mix of hormonal and physiological changes, often referred to as the "fight or flight" response. This response is crucial for survival, like when a lion may be chasing you, but when it's constantly activated by the stresses of modern life it can wear your body down and affect your mental health. Here's how stress can affect various systems in your body:

1. Nervous System

When stressed, your body releases stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which increase your heart rate, elevate your blood pressure, disregulate sleep, and drain your energy supplies. Chronic stress can lead to long-term issues like anxiety, depression, and sleep disturbances.

2. Immune System

Initially, stress can boost your immune system, making you more resilient to infections, which is obviously a good thing! However, chronic stress weakens the immune response over time, making you more vulnerable to illnesses and infections.

3. Digestive System

Stress can affect your digestive system, leading to problems like stomach aches, bloating, and changes in appetite. Chronic stress can exacerbate gastrointestinal disorders, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

4. Cardiovascular System

Temporary stress can cause an increase in heart rate and blood pressure that will improve as the stressor is removed or managed. Over time, however, chronic stress can contribute to inflammation in the coronary arteries, risk factors for heart disease, and stroke.

5. Musculoskeletal System

Under stress, your muscles tense up as part of the fight or flight response. If your muscles are not relaxed, they can trigger headaches, migraines, and other musculoskeletal conditions.

Practical Tips for Managing Stress

Know Your Stressors

Keep a journal to identify situations that cause you the most stress. Understanding your triggers can help you find ways to avoid them or reduce their impact.

Develop Healthy Responses

Instead of coping with stress through unhealthy behaviors like smoking, drinking alcohol, or overeating, choose healthy ways to respond. Exercise, meditation, and hobbies can be excellent outlets for stress.

Establish Boundaries

In today's digital world, it's easy to feel pressured to be available 24/7. Establish work-life boundaries that ensure you have time to relax and recharge. Not only is work-life balance important, but avoid spreading yourself too thin. Don’t be afraid to say no. Another tip, set a limit on screen time. For example after 7pm you cannot check emails, take phone calls, scroll social media, etc.

Understanding Stress - Relaxation Techniques

Practice Relaxation Techniques

Techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, mindfulness, and yoga can activate the body's relaxation response, counteracting the stress response. Practice taking mindful moments throughout the day to simply focus on your breath for five rounds of breathing. You will be amazed at how relaxed you feel after a few deep breaths.

Talk to Loved Ones

Maintain a supportive network of friends and family. Social support is a vital factor in stress management. Expressing how you are feeling, “venting”, can help reduce feelings of stress or bottling up emotions. It also can feel very reassuring that we are not alone in our feelings.

Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle

A balanced diet, regular physical activity, and adequate sleep are foundational to managing stress effectively.

Talk to Your Doctor

While stress is part of normal life, if it is debilitating, affecting your daily living, physical and mental health, it is time to seek help. There is no shame in asking for help, we are here for just that. Book an appointment with your primary care physician today. However, if you ever feel like hurting yourself or others contact 911 immediately. For immediate non-life threatening help you can call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988.