Some cook. Some hide. Some cry. Some drink. Some eat. Some shop. Some pray. We all handle stress in different ways. But are you really coping with stress or just managing the symptoms it creates?
What Happens To Your Body When You Are Stressed?
Stress is a process in which we react in specific ways to external or internal stressors. Our bodies naturally release hormones called catecholamines that historically would enhance survival and adaptive responses. If a huge bear is chasing you, you would run, make quick decisions, even ignore broken bones to survive because of the catecholamine surge. However, as society has advanced, we no longer have the need to run away from bears. Instead, we constantly are battling other types of stress that can still be damaging. With prolonged stress, our bodies continue to release high concentrations of stress hormones (catecholamines but also substances called prostaglandins and corticosteroids). This negatively alters the immune system, causes chronic muscle tension, and generates an imbalance in many organ groups (especially cardiovascular, nervous and endocrine systems).
What If Stress Isn’t Handled Appropriately?
Emotional and mental stress will evidently manifest physically, here’s how: the initial reaction to stress is alarm and awareness of the stress (this is when your body starts that catecholamine surge). The next step is typically an attempt to cope or problem-solve the stress. We tend to try to use all our resources to meet and overcome. If successful, we learn from the experience and the stress process stops. If not successful, we tend to become completely spent emotionally, mentally and physiologically. This leads to the last stage, exhaustion. This is where I tend to find people coming into my office. Their emotional and physical reserves are depleted. They are searching for help, not for their stress but instead for the symptoms caused by prolonged stress.
They tend to tell me about the following:
- Weight gain or loss
- Upset stomach
- Stiff neck or jaw
- Shortness of breath
- Relationship problems
- Trouble sleeping or insomnia
- High blood pressure
- Increase in Headaches or new onset headaches
- Depressed mood
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Back pain
- Anxious thoughts
- Increased smoking
- Drug use
- Drinking alcohol
Are you currently experiencing any of the following? If so, maybe it’s time to evaluate your stress level!
Dealing With Stress
There are only two ways to change your stress level:
- Change the stress
This means getting rid of whatever is causing stress. Is there something in your life like an abusive relationship, job dissatisfaction, family dispute? Please gather up the courage and say “I HAVE HAD ENOUGH!” Make a change to resolve these problem areas.
- Change your response to stress
For most of us, our stressors cannot be changed. Chronic illness, recent death, unavoidable changes that occur in life, the list goes on and on. These are unavoidable causes of stress so you must change your response to stress. A buzz word that flies around is “self-care.” This involves taking an internal look at yourself, realizing how you react to a situation and how you can modify this. Think about how the stress makes you feel and think. You control your thoughts and your reactions. You can change your reaction.
Stress Management Techniques
A powerful tool to managing stress is having a support system. As humans, we were made to be a part of group. Seek out the significant people in your life who provide love, a sense of belonging and trust then ask if you can share your feelings with them. This may involve getting more involved with your church family, local community group or close network of friends. Over 200 medical studies have proven that people who regularly participate in groups that provide comfort and support have better health outcomes and longer life expectancy.
Gain a Sense of Control by Relaxing and Rethinking your Thoughts
Many experience increased stress because they fear or worry about the unknown. They overthink the situation and create a falsehood of “worsening doom.” Instead clearly outline what is making you feel stressed. Think about what will likely happen then ask yourself, “Can I change the outcome?” If the answer is no, then ask, “how can I react to this?” The technical term for this called “behavior rehearsing” or “cognitive behavior therapy.”
Get Some Sleep
Many people describe “not being able to turn their thoughts off” or “lying in bed worrying.” Though insomnia is not a life threatening problem, it does lead to poor daytime performance, worsening depression or anxiety and continues to escalate the stress process. Before you jump to sleep aid medications, try the following sleep habits
- Exercise regularly
- Avoid caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, excessive warmth and hunger around bedtime
- Go to bed only when sleepy
- Don’t lay in bed watching TV or using your cell phone
- Get up about the same day regardless of when you go to bed
- When you lay down, try to relax all your muscle particularly your neck, shoulders and face. Deep breathe slowly and evenly.
- If you go to bed and don’t fall asleep in 20 minutes, get back up and return to bed when sleepy.