It seems like stress is just an unavoidable part of today’s fast-paced, competitive world. But is it really? Stress is the body’s instinctive response to external environmental cues, as well as to one’s inner thoughts and feelings. It is how you react to perceived danger — the “fight or flight” response, for example. But you do have some control over how stress operates in your life. Once you understand the dynamics of stress, in fact, you can actually retrain and retune your body and mind to handle stress differently.
It is important to note that, technically, stress does not come from life’s situations or problems. Rather stress comes from our reactions to these things. In other words, for stress to negatively influence your health, you must first perceive the stimulus as a threat.
Anxiety is the natural reaction to a threatening situation. Your body interprets anxiety as fear, and fear stimulates the body’s “fight or flight” response. That response was originally programmed into our physiology in order to help us cope with threatening situations — lion attacks, for example — that occurred only occasionally and that passed (for better or worse) rather quickly.
A large, sudden release of cortisol, adrenaline and other chemicals can give you life-saving speed, strength and agility for a brief period. But spending too much time in a constant, low-grade “fight or flight” mode — a phenomenon known as chronic stress — can create a biochemical profile that spells serious trouble for your health. It’s like trying to constantly over-rev your engine, or driving on the freeway with your emergency brake on. The result: bad fuel efficiency, certain breakdown and a lot of unnecessary repair bills.
Costs and Causes
In modern life, stress is primarily the result of the conflicting demands placed on us by work, family and lifestyle. Many people respond stressfully to intense emotional experiences or personal life changes. Others just consistently overreact to their day-to-day lives. In some cases, stress is self-imposed through personal desires for accomplishment. Certain people are even stressed by extreme weather or overexposure to electronic stimuli (too much TV or computer time). But most of the time, at least in our culture, stress is triggered by the nagging feeling of not having enough time to do all there is to do.
A certain amount of stress can actually be useful, since mild stress can serve as a motivation for focus and productivity. However, as noted, when the stresses of life grow too extreme or too numerous, a wide range of physical and mental problems can result.
Whatever the source, stress can drain your body’s resources. It significantly weakens the immune system and makes the body more susceptible to disease. It also manifests as an astonishingly wide variety of physical problems, including headaches, backaches, infections, skin conditions and constipation. Heart disease and even cancer can also result from long-term exposure to stress.
Why? When you’re stressed, the brain and pituitary gland react by releasing adrenocorticotropic hormones, which in turn stimulate the adrenal glands to produce a variety of hormones, including epinephrine and norepinephrine (commonly known as adrenaline). These hormones increase the blood pressure and heart rate, constrict blood vessels to reduce blood flow to the digestive tract and internal organs and increase blood flow to the muscles and brain. Thus coiled for action, the body is prepared for “fight or flight.”
This defense mechanism prepares the body for an exertive action that will ensure escape or survival. However, when no real danger is present and no physical outlet or relief is provided, then the chemical operatives in this defense mechanism may instead be turned inward, wreaking havoc with your physiology, organs, emotions and mind.
What’s That Grinding Noise?
Along with reducing blood flow to internal organs, stress interferes with the body’s natural functions by producing irritating chemical molecules that damage cells, organs and blood-vessel linings. Stress responses also “eat up” important nutrients, which can make already weakened tissues more vulnerable.
Though all parts of the body are affected by stress, certain areas seem to be more sensitive than others.
In my estimation, the digestive system is the most easily influenced. Constipation, indigestion, loss of appetite, diarrhea and peptic ulcers are common stress-related digestive problems. Stress initially increases the stomach’s production of hydrochloric acid, resulting in heartburn, gastritis and ulcers. The extra stomach acid also affects the function of the pancreas, which in turn impedes digestion and nutrient absorption.
The impacts of stress to your body’s other systems are many and varied:
- Stress can manifest in the circulatory system as atherosclerosis and high blood pressure. As adrenaline stimulates the liver to release more glucose and cholesterol into the blood, cholesterol levels can rise to unhealthy levels.
- The musculoskeletal system suffers from the buildup of tensions in muscles in joints, as well as from the toxins generated by disrupted metabolism.
- Your psychological outlook and emotional welfare can be deeply affected by acute and chronic stress. Symptoms of depression, insomnia, anorexia nervosa, irritability and sexual problems can all result from extended stress.
Now that you understand how real and serious the effects of stress are on the body, you’re probably more motivated to find ways of counteracting them. There are plenty of effective (and mostly pleasant) things you can do to minimize and manage stress. Here are some of my recommendations:
- HAVE MORE FUN. Schedule in and actively pursue activities that you enjoy and that help you relax.
- EXPRESS YOUR FEELINGS. Emotions need regular venting and evolution. Stuck, unexpressed emotions are the building blocks of pain and illness.
- GET ENOUGH SLEEP. Poor sleep habits interfere with your body’s ability to rest, heal and recharge. If you have trouble sleeping, seek out the causes and get some help addressing them!
- EXERCISE. Regular physical exercise is one of the best ways to clear away tension and build energy. It also helps you to adopt a better life perspective and to feel more in control of your circumstances.
- PRACTICE RELAXATION EXERCISES. Breathing, meditation and visualization exercises help you let go of mental worries and allow you to experience precious moments of calm and inner peace. I believe that this quiet, “nothing happening” space is where the healing process begins.
- DEVELOP GOOD RELATIONSHIPS. It is important to have authentic friends in whom you can confide and find support. Those who love and accept you — people who will listen and advise, but won’t judge — are your true friends. It can also be very fulfilling to be a true friend to someone else.
- EXPERIENCE LOVE AND SATISFYING SEX. A primary relationship that’s loving, sensual and sexual can also be a major stress reducer. Having an understanding, accepting companion to receive your hardworking body and mind can be the best therapy available. That said, if you do not currently have such a relationship in your life, turn to the other helpful therapies. If you are lacking touch, consider getting massage or another form of healing bodywork (you can always trade hand and neck rubs with a friend).
- CHANGE PERCEPTIONS AND ATTITUDES. When ideas or views are not serving you, it’s wise to examine and adapt them. It’s important to learn to respond to life’s situations and not just react. This is a true “response-ability”! Hanging onto frustrations, holding grudges, and playing the victim/blame game are not in your health’s best interest. When you can, step back from the little struggles and look at the big picture. See challenges as opportunities for growth and learning. Many people find that applying spiritual principles to sticky life situations offers direction as well as greater peace of mind and heart. But whether it’s a spiritual practice or a daily yoga or journaling ritual, do what you need to do in order to find and experience self-love, self-respect and true self-worth.
- EAT RIGHT. Eating nutrient-poor foods that are high in sugar or filled with chemicals and unhealthy fats puts an unnecessary stress on your system, reducing your immunity, overloading your liver and forcing your body to work overtime just to maintain balance. If you use up too many of your body’s resources on handling high-stress food-and-drink operations, there’s not much left over for emergencies. Eating nourishing food, on the other hand, supports your body’s natural immune and healing systems, helping your body to cope successfully with other sources of stress.
In addition to the physical and mental therapies for counteracting stress, you need a healthy eating plan. High-nutrient foods are essential for a body under stress, when the body’s supply of nutrients is more quickly depleted. And the problem only gets worse if you skip meals or snack ceaselessly on quick-energy or fast foods.
The first part of any healthy strategy is to “do no harm.” To that end, avoid taking in anything that might worsen the effects of stress. Caffeine, nicotine, alcohol and many other drugs can be highly irritating to a stressed-out body. Even if they make you feel better for the moment, the overall and long-term effects are generally very negative.
Opt for three to five small-but-wholesome meals a day during high-stress times. This style of eating is easier on the digestive system than the typical “three squares a day.” Make sure you are drinking enough water while at work and play.
A detoxification-type diet is one healthy food plan you can follow during times of intense stress. Reducing the number of heavy meals (which can be too taxing on the body under stress) and drinking lots of water and fresh juice can help you lighten up when life gets too “heavy.” Responding to stress by overeating will only make matters worse. Vegetable juices, fruits, soups, and salads, for example, can be very nourishing without creating great demands on the body and digestive systems.
Another bit of advice: Try to avoid stressful environments or situations around mealtime. When possible, rest and relax before and after eating, even if just for a minute or two. Listening to soothing music during dinner also helps reduce stress and aids digestion. Taking a brief walk after dinner can also be calming and help ensure that you don’t get sucked into a stress-inducing or mind-numbing TV program.
Stress depletes so many of the body’s nutrients that it’s difficult to maintain adequate levels from food alone. Most people are just too busy to invest the time and effort required to prepare meals that will satisfy a stressed body’s nutritional needs.
Daily vitamin and mineral supplements, combined with healthy eating habits, can help keep the body in good working order. The B vitamins are all significantly depleted by stress. Pantothenic acid (vitamin B5) is needed for proper function of the adrenal glands. Niacin is another key B vitamin that helps counter the biochemical effects of stress. B vitamins are best absorbed by the body (and least upsetting to the stomach) when taken following a meal.
Vitamin C may be the single most important anti-stress nutrient of all. Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, is very rapidly utilized and minimally stored in the body. It offers protection for the cells, aids in the function of the adrenal glands and provides support for the immune system. Vitamin C is also a powerful antioxidant and helps restore vitamin E after it is oxidized. For additional antioxidants, I suggest supplementing vitamin A and beta-carotene, vitamin E and selenium. As with vitamin C, all these antioxidants sacrifice themselves (through oxidation) to balance out the free radicals in the body, so keeping a steady supply coming in is a good idea.
Then there’s minerals — the foundation of good nutrition. Potassium, calcium and magnesium head the anti-stress list of mineral supplements. Potassium serves to regulate the heartbeat and prevent muscle cramps. Calcium is vital to nerve transmission, normal heart rhythm and immune function. It also aids in relaxation and muscle tone. Magnesium is a tranquilizing mineral that helps balance the nervous system and support heart function.
If you’re interested in learning more about supplements and recommended dosages, you can consult my book Staying Healthy With Nutrition, which includes a detailed anti-stress program.
As research continues to link stress to more and more symptoms and diseases, it is vital to adopt physical, mental and emotional habits that will counter the effects of stress on your body. Remember, it is largely how you interpret the events and demands around you that determines how stressful they become to your system. When you get smart about managing the stress in your life, the immediate benefit will be a healthier, happier, more maintenance-free you.