Our pace of life seems to get faster as the years progress and as technology improves. Sometimes it seems like stress is omnipresent either as a result of everyday life or due to a significant life event. Whatever the cause, stress can be harmful to our health. We cannot escape stress completely, but there are proactive steps that we can take to help change the way our bodies respond.
When we experience a stressful event, the body’s response is activated in the same way as it has been for millennia. The problem is that in our world today, this stress response is often activated throughout the day and can extend over long periods. The stress response is meant to protect us from immediate danger and then dissipate after the threat has gone (think of a caveman running from a tiger). The problem is that many of us are continually responding to the demands of modern life, such as emails, traffic, deadlines, and paying bills, which can cause our bodies to answer the same way as if a tiger was chasing us.
Our bodies are trying to help us out, but we are not meant to be under stress all the time. The sympathetic nervous system (aka “fight or flight” response) is activated from the hypothalamus in the brain and sends signals to the adrenal glands. These are small glands that are located on top of our kidneys. As adrenaline and cortisol are released, a cascade of events is triggered—blood pressure increases, heart rate increases, and blood sugar increases. Also, the immune system is altered, digestive function is decreased, and reproductive hormones are affected. After the threat is over, the stress response system slows down, and your body should quickly recover and return to a parasympathetic (aka “rest and digest”) state.
Your body gets tired of coping with all that perceived danger. Living in a constant state of stress can lead to long-term effects on the body. We can be susceptible to many health concerns. These include:
- Increased blood sugar
- Decreased memory and concentration
- Reduced ability to burn fat, leading to weight gain
- Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
- Digestive symptoms
- Increased frequency of catching a cold or getting sick
- High blood pressure
- Hormone imbalances, and
- An overall level of increased inflammation.
Fortunately, there are many things we can do to decrease the effects of stress in the body to help preserve our health.
One of the first things that we can do when we feel stressed is to examine our thoughts and actions. Taking a step back and reflecting on the event can allow us to see it differently. Maybe there are possibilities that we didn’t see before or things we can do to make the event less stressful. However, if a situation can’t be changed, then we can try reframing our thoughts. For example: Are there opportunities gained? Are there lessons learned?
It can be helpful to notice our thought patterns when we feel stressed. The thoughts we think in our mind are related to the amount of stress we feel in our bodies. If our habit is to slip into negative thinking, then this can increase the body’s response to stress. Becoming mindful of our thoughts means that we are less likely to get caught up in them. If we start observing and listening to our thoughts, we may notice that we fall into a pattern of negative self-talk. But, is everything we tell ourselves true? Maybe not. We don’t have to believe the negative thoughts that can result from stress.
Reframing a stressful situation in these ways can be beneficial, but other techniques may be helpful as well.
Breathing: Deep abdominal breathing can be a great way to decrease the body’s stress response and promote relaxation. Most of us take shallow breaths as we rush through the day, especially when we are nervous or anxious. Deep breathing is easy to do, helps focus the mind, and is very relaxing.
To begin with, you can find a quiet place and a comfortable seat. Place one hand on your abdomen and the other hand on your heart. Sit quietly and notice your breathing. Feel your abdomen and chest move up and down with each inhale and exhale. You may see your chest moving more than your abdomen at first. Try to make your breath come from your abdomen instead. This is deeper breathing than when it comes from the chest. Focus on deep inhalations while feeling your abdomen fill and expand, then exhaling entirely while feeling your abdomen slowly empty and contract. You can repeat this pattern of breathing, trying to find a rhythm that feels good to your body.
Meditation: Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years and can also be useful in helping to decrease stress. There are many different types of meditations and apps that you can use. Even a few minutes each day can provide benefits. To get started with mindfulness meditation, sit comfortably in a place where no one will distract you. Concentrate on your breathing and notice each breath as it goes in and out. Bring a gentle awareness back to your breath each time your mind starts to wander. You can observe your thoughts and emotions, but let them pass without judgment. Meditation can help relax the body, and, just like deep breathing, it is simple and inexpensive.
Testing can be done to measure cortisol levels at various points throughout the day. Usually, a sample is taken either through urine or saliva upon waking, at midday, in the afternoon and the evening. The ideal pattern is to have cortisol highest in the morning and lowest in the evening. However, test results can vary. If cortisol is low in the morning (when it should be high), then that person would most likely have a difficult time waking up and getting out of bed. If cortisol is high in the evening (when it should be low), then that person would most likely have difficulty falling asleep and/or staying asleep. As the test results are interpreted, these data points can be helpful in determining a supportive treatment plan and for seeing how stress may be related to symptoms in the body.
There is a special class of botanical medicine called adaptogens, which can help the body adapt to stress and assist in normalizing adrenal function. They can help to support systems that are affected by the adrenal glands, like blood pressure, blood sugar, and immune regulation. A few popular adaptogens are Ashwagandha, Holy Basil and Rhodiola. We can use adaptogens as a single herb, or we can use a blend of a few together at the same time so that they have a synergistic effect. Some adaptogens can work quickly, but most work best when taken for at least three months. It is best to speak with your healthcare provider before taking adaptogens to see if these may be helpful for you.
Stress is something that we all experience, particularly in today’s modern world. We can, however, find ways to manage and reduce stress, which may involve perspective taking, relaxation techniques, or rebalancing activities. Also, working with a practitioner who is familiar with cortisol testing, botanical medicine, and lifestyle medicine can help mitigate the effects of stress. He or she can also discuss an individualized plan with you to help decrease stress levels. Even though we may encounter stressful events, it can be empowering to know that there are a variety of paths that we can follow to help change the way our bodies respond.
Additionally, these practices may help to improve our work-life balance. Explore how you can manage your stress and what works best for you. Your body may be trying to tell you something. Maybe it’s time to listen.
Authored by: Dr. Anne Berkeley. For more information, please visit https://medicinetothrive.com/
Note: This article does not provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment, or services to any individual. The information on this site is for educational purposes only.