Chronic stress can have devastating effects on your body and mind. Take steps to control your stress.
Your body is wired to respond to stress in ways that protect you against threats from predators and other aggressors. Such threats are rare today, but that doesn’t mean life is stress-free. On the contrary, you probably face many demands every day, such as taking on a huge workload, paying bills, and taking care of your family. Your body treats these so-called minor hassles as threats. Therefore, you may feel like you are constantly under attack. But you can defend yourself. You don’t have to let stress control your life.
The natural reaction to stress: secretion of cortisol and adrenaline
When you perceive a threat, like a big dog barking on your morning walk, your hypothalamus, a small region at the base of your brain, triggers an alarm system in your body. Through a combination of nerve and hormonal signals, this system prompts your adrenal glands, located above your kidneys, to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline increases your heart rate, raises your blood pressure and increases your energy stores. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, promotes your brain’s use of glucose, and increases the availability of substances that repair tissue.
Cortisol also dampens functions that would be non-essential or harmful in a fight-or-flight situation. It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, reproductive system and growth processes. This complex natural alarm system also communicates with areas of the brain that control mood, motivation and fear.
When the natural stress response goes into overdrive
The body’s stress response system is generally self-limiting. Once the perceived threat has passed, hormone levels return to normal. As adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels, and other systems resume normal activities.
But when the stressors are still there and you constantly feel under attack, that fight or flight response stays activated. The long-term activation of the stress response system and the resulting overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones can disrupt almost every process in your body. This puts you at increased risk for many health problems, including:
– Digestive problems
– Muscle tension and pain
– Heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure and stroke
– Sleep problems
– Weight gain
– Memory and concentration problems
That’s why it’s so important to learn healthy ways to cope with life’s stressors.
Why do you react the way you do to life’s stressors?
Your reaction to a potentially stressful event is different from that of any other person. How you react to life stressors is affected by factors such as:
The genes that control the stress response keep most people at a fairly stable emotional level, only occasionally triggering fight or flight. An excessive or insufficient stress response can result from slight differences in these genes.
Strong stress reactions can sometimes be linked to traumatic events. People who were neglected or abused as children tend to be particularly vulnerable to stress. The same goes for plane crash survivors, military personnel, police officers and firefighters, and people who have been victims of violent crime.
You may have friends who seem relaxed about almost everything and others who react strongly to the slightest stress. Most people react to life stressors between these two extremes.
Learn to respond to stress in a healthy way
Stressful events are part of life. And you may not be able to change your current situation. But you can take steps to manage the impact these events have on you. You can learn to identify what causes you stress and take care of yourself physically and emotionally in the face of stressful situations.
Stress management strategies:
– Eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly and get enough sleep.
– practice relaxation techniques such as yoga, deep breathing, massage or meditation
– Keep a journal and write down what you think or what you are grateful for in your life.
– Make time for hobbies, such as reading, listening to music, or watching your favorite show or movie.
– nurture healthy friendships and talk with friends and family
– Have a sense of humor and find ways to include humor and laughter in your life, such as watching funny movies or visiting joke websites.
– Organize and prioritize what you need to accomplish at home and at work and remove unnecessary tasks.
– Consult a professional, who can help you develop specific coping strategies to manage stress.
– Avoid unhealthy ways to manage your stress, such as alcohol, tobacco, drugs or overeating. If you are concerned that your intake of these products has increased or changed due to stress, talk to your doctor.
The benefits of learning to manage stress can include peace of mind, less stress and anxiety, better quality of life, improved conditions such as high blood pressure, better self-control and focus, and better relationships. And it can even lead to a longer, healthier life.