You may feel physical stress as the result of too much to do, not enough sleep, a poor diet or the effects of an illness. Stress can also be mental: when you worry about money, a loved one’s illness, retirement, or experience an emotionally devastating event, such as the death of a spouse or being fired from work.
However, much of our stress comes from less dramatic everyday responsibilities. Obligations and pressures which are both physical and mental are not always obvious to us. In response to these daily strains your body automatically increases blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, metabolism, and blood flow to your muscles. This response is intended to help your body react quickly and effectively to a high-pressure situation.
The Stress Response
Often referred to as the “fight-or-flight” reaction, the stress response occurs automatically when you feel threatened. Your body’s fight-or-flight reaction has strong biological roots. It’s there for self-preservation. This reaction gave early humans the energy to fight aggressors or run from predators and was important to help the human species survive. But today, instead of protecting you, it may have the opposite effect. If you are constantly stressed you may actually be more vulnerable to life-threatening health problems.
Any sort of change in life can make you feel stressed, even good change. It’s not just the change or event itself, but also how you react to it that matters. What may be stressful is different for each person. For example, one person may not feel stressed by retiring from work, while another may feel stressed.
How Stress Affects Your Body
When you experience stress, your pituitary gland responds by increasing the release of a hormone called adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). When the pituitary sends out this burst of ACTH, it’s like an alarm system going off deep inside your brain. This alarm tells your adrenal glands, situated atop your kidneys, to release a flood of stress hormones into your bloodstream, including cortisol and adrenaline. These stress hormones cause a whole series of physiological changes in your body, such as increasing your heart rate and blood pressure, shutting down your digestive system, and altering your immune system. Once the perceived threat is gone, the levels of cortisol and adrenaline in your bloodstream decline, and your heart rate and blood pressure and all of your other body functions return to normal.
If stressful situations pile up one after another, your body has no chance to recover. This long-term activation of the stress-response system can disrupt almost all your body’s processes. Some of the most common physical responses to chronic stress are experienced in the digestive system. For example, stomach aches or diarrhea are very common when you’re stressed. This happens because stress hormones slow the release of stomach acid and the emptying of the stomach. The same hormones also stimulate the colon, which speeds the passage of its contents.
Chronic stress tends to dampen your immune system as well, making you more susceptible to colds and other infections. Typically, your immune system responds to infection by releasing several substances that cause inflammation. Chronic systemic inflammation contributes to the development of many degenerative diseases.
Stress has been linked with the nervous system as well, since it can lead to depression, anxiety, panic attacks and dementia. Over time, the chronic release of cortisol can cause damage to several structures in the brain. Excessive amounts of cortisol can also cause sleep disturbances and a loss of sex drive. The cardiovascular system is also affected by stress because there may be an increase in both heart rate and blood pressure, which may lead to heart attacks or strokes.
Exactly how you react to a specific stressor may be completely different from anyone else. Some people are naturally laid-back about almost everything, while others react strongly at the slightest hint of stress. If you have had any of the following conditions, it may be a sign that you are suffering from stress: Anxiety, Insomnia, back pain, relationship problems, constipation, shortness of breath, depression, stiff neck, fatigue, upset stomach, and weight gain or loss.
After decades of research, it is clear that the negative effects associated with stress are real. Although you may not always be able to avoid stressful situations, there are a number of things that you can do to reduce the effect that stress has on your body. The first is relaxation. Learning to relax doesn’t have to be difficult. Here are some simple techniques to help get you started on your way to tranquility.
Have you ever noticed how you breathe when you’re stressed? Stress typically causes rapid, shallow breathing. This kind of breathing sustains other aspects of the stress response, such as rapid heart rate and perspiration. If you can get control of your breathing, the spiraling effects of acute stress will automatically become less intense. Relaxed breathing, also called diaphragmatic breathing, can help you.
Practice this basic technique twice a day, every day, and whenever you feel tense. Follow these steps:
- Inhale. With your mouth closed and your shoulders relaxed, inhale as slowly and deeply as you can to the count of six. As you do that, push your stomach out. Allow the air to fill your diaphragm.
- Hold. Keep the air in your lungs as you slowly count to four.
- Exhale. Release the air through your mouth as you slowly count to six.
- Repeat. Complete the inhale-hold-exhale cycle three to five times.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
The goal of progressive muscle relaxation is to reduce the tension in your muscles. First, find a quiet place where you’ll be free from interruption. Loosen tight clothing and remove your glasses or contacts if you’d like.
Tense each muscle group for at least five seconds and then relax for at least 30 seconds. Repeat before moving to the next muscle group.
- Upper part of your face. Lift your eyebrows toward the ceiling, feeling the tension in your forehead and scalp. Relax. Repeat.
- Central part of your face. Squint your eyes tightly and wrinkle your nose and mouth, feeling the tension in the center of your face. Relax. Repeat.
- Lower part of your face. Clench your teeth and pull back the corners of your mouth toward your ears. Show your teeth like a snarling dog. Relax. Repeat.
- Neck. Gently touch your chin to your chest. Feel the pull in the back of your neck as it spreads into your head. Relax. Repeat.
- Shoulders. Pull your shoulders up toward your ears, feeling the tension in your shoulders, head, neck and upper back. Relax. Repeat.
- Upper arms. Pull your arms back and press your elbows in toward the sides of your body. Try not to tense your lower arms. Feel the tension in your arms, shoulders and into your back. Relax. Repeat.
- Hands and lower arms. Make a tight fist and pull up your wrists. Feel the tension in your hands, knuckles and lower arms. Relax. Repeat.
- Chest, shoulders and upper back. Pull your shoulders back as if you’re trying to make your shoulder blades touch. Relax. Repeat.
- Stomach. Pull your stomach in toward your spine, tightening your abdominal muscles. Relax. Repeat.
- Upper legs. Squeeze your knees together and lift your legs up off the chair or from wherever you’re relaxing. Feel the tension in your thighs. Relax. Repeat.
- Lower legs. Raise your feet toward the ceiling while flexing them toward your body. Feel the tension in your calves. Relax. Repeat.
- Feet. Turn your feet inward and curl your toes up and out. Relax. Repeat.
Perform progressive muscle relaxation at least once or twice each day to get the maximum benefit. Each session should last about 10 minutes.
Listen to Soothing Sounds
If you have about 10 minutes and a quiet room, you can take a mental vacation almost anytime. Consider these two types of relaxation CDs or tapes to help you unwind, rest your mind or take a visual journey to a peaceful place.
- Spoken word. These CDs use spoken suggestions to guide your meditation, educate you on stress reduction or take you on an imaginary visual journey to a peaceful place.
- Soothing music or nature sounds. Music has the power to affect your thoughts and feelings. Soft, soothing music can help you relax and lower your stress level.
No one CD works for everyone, so try several CDs to find which works best for you. When possible, listen to samples in the store. Consider asking your friends or a trusted professional for recommendations.
Exercise is a good way to deal with stress because it is a healthy way to relieve your pent-up energy and tension. It also helps you get in better shape, which makes you feel better overall. By getting physically active, you can decrease your levels of anxiety and stress and elevate your moods. Numerous studies have shown that people who begin exercise programs, either at home or at work, demonstrate a marked improvement in their ability to concentrate, are able to sleep better, suffer from fewer illnesses, suffer from less pain and report a much higher quality of life than those who do not exercise. This is even true of people who had not begun an exercise program until they were in their 40s, 50s, 60s or even 70s. So if you want to feel better and improve your quality of life, get active!