One of the biggest impacts on our overall health can be our level of stress and what we do to manage it. Everyone copes with stress in their own way and our bodies show the signs of too much stress in unique ways. For some it can be increased insomnia, for others increased susceptibility to colds and flus, or increased digestive problems. Some people have mood swings, increased irritability or anger. Or it could show itself as an increase in severity of existing symptoms. How can stress cause all those things?
When our brain perceives some form of threat it signals the body to prepare itself to face the threat or run away from it (fight or flight). This causes a redistribution of the body’s resources. If you are in danger you need energy in your muscles, and you want your primitive brain function heightened to make life saving decisions. Your heart pumps faster, you breathe faster, your vision improves.
Whilst that’s going on other functions in your body are slowed. Resources are diverted away from body systems that aren’t needed to keep you alive in an emergency, such as your digestive, immune, and reproductive systems.
Stress itself isn’t a bad guy. We need ‘stress’ to be able to get up in the morning. Stress hormones help us function normally throughout the day. Stress becomes a problem when those hormone levels stay up persistently. Ideally, our stress hormones peak when there is a physical threat to be dealt with, and then rapidly drop to normal levels once the threat has passed. But unfortunately, our brain responds to our thoughts in very similar ways to how it responds to physical threats. Our thoughts are constant, so they can cause a constant state of stress!
With prolonged, chronic stress our digestive, immune and/or reproductive function can be detrimentally affected. Our adrenal glands (which produce the stress hormones) can get exhausted and struggle to produce enough hormones for normal function, which can cause fatigue. If you’re not digesting your food properly you can start to get nutritional deficiencies, which can have widespread effects throughout the body including mood imbalances.
The first step to reducing your stress levels is to be aware when you are under stress. Most people recognise the impact of the big stressful events in life. But many low-grade stresses from different parts of your life can combine to raise your overall stress levels without you being aware of them. We often develop signs that our stress is raised (eg cold sores, digestive symptoms), and being able to recognise the early warning signs means you can act quickly to stop stress getting out of control.
Being aware of your thought patterns is a vital part of reducing your stress levels. Research into Mindfulness techniques is showing that daily practice helps calm the brain and reduce anxiety. There are plenty of Mindfulness resources online, for example: Everyday Mindfulness Exercises For Stress Relief.
To help clear excess stress hormones, do what they are designed to help you do – MOVE! It doesn’t matter what sort of movement you do, anything to elevate your heart rate and breathing. It could be doing jumping jacks until you can’t do any more, or going for a brisk walk, run or bike ride. Regular daily exercise will help control and lower your stress levels.
Try some herbal teas such as chamomile or rooibos in the evening for their calming effects, and reduce caffeine intake (particularly after lunchtime) as it increases stress hormone levels.
Consider if stress is causing your symptoms before resorting to sleeping pills, antidepressants or antacids, and try some stress reduction techniques to see if you can reduce your symptoms (and avoid potential medication side effects). Managing the cause is much more effective and lasting than treating the symptoms.