How stress affects your body
Everyone experiences stress from time to time. However, if your level of stress seems uncharacteristically high for an extended period of time, or if the amount of stressors in your life increases, it can take a toll on your body if left unchecked. Let's look at what you should know about stress: why you should never wait to de-stress and how best to manage it to avoid lasting negative effects.
To start, I’ll briefly go over the nuts and bolts of our nervous system’s response to stress.
Your Body’s Response to Stress
The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is your body's automatic response to stimuli. It’s responsible for managing the functions of your body that you don’t have to think about: breathing, digestion, heart rate and blood pressure. When it's working properly, it helps you stay alert and focused when you need to be, but it also allows you to relax and sleep when you need to.
In order to do its job it relies on two main branches: the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) which regulates your “fight or flight” response, and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) which regulates your “rest and digest” functions.
The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is designed to respond quickly in times of crisis. It automatically kicks in when you experience a threat, either perceived or real. This response is sudden and meant to respond to acute, short term stressors.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) gets to work after the period of danger or threat has passed. It generally acts in opposition to the sympathetic nervous system and is responsible for calming down after stressful situations. In short, it's what makes you relax after being threatened.
Both these systems are important for survival but continuous activation of these systems can be harmful for your health. If this happens regularly over time then your bodies become used to being in a state of high alert so when you don’t feel threatened or threatened, your brain can’t tell the difference and continues to release stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol into your bloodstream. This can lead to you feeling stressed out or anxious even when there is no real danger around you.
We can't control everything that happens in our lives, and many of the things that cause it are external. But at the very least, we can take control of how we react to them.
It's a delicate balance between the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) and parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) nervous systems that keeps everything in check. A little bit of stress can be good for you. It can help you out of trouble when you're in danger or keep you motivated when you're trying to accomplish something important, but too much stress can be harmful. Chronic stress can lead to mental health problems like depression or anxiety disorders; physical health problems like high blood pressure; even damage to your immune system.
In today's fast-paced world, where you’re constantly exposed to stressors all day long, it's easy for your nervous system to get out of whack. Left unchecked, this continuous activation can do lasting damage. The good news is that you can reduce the negative impact of stress on your health and well-being by learning to manage it in healthy ways. In the following sections, I'm going to share approaches that combine stress reduction and beneficial lifestyle habits.
Ways to Reduce Stress
Meditation is a great way to help reduce your stress levels while simultaneously increasing your mental focus and emotional stability. Studies have found regular meditators experience relaxation and better self-regulation.* More specifically, studies have found that meditations that focus on the breath reduce emotional intensity of stimuli.**
Breathwork is another simple technique that can help relieve stress and anxiety by calming the mind and helping us focus on the present moment instead of dwelling on past or future events. Breathwork involves taking slow deep breaths from the diaphragm (the lower area of lungs). This method helps us feel more relaxed and helps us to focus on the present moment. Although breathwork is often used in conjunction with meditation, it can be practiced as a stand alone exercise to reduce stress.
Physical activity is one of the best ways to relieve stress and improve your overall health at the same time. In a study that examined the effects of stress on physical activity and healthy eating, it was discovered that low to moderate levels of daily activity were significantly linked to lower stress levels. ***
A physical activity like yoga is a great way to relieve stress and improve your health at the same time. Yoga requires you to focus on your breathing and move slowly through a series of poses that can be challenging at first, but become easier over time. Whether you choose yoga or jogging or something else entirely, just getting up off the couch and moving around will make all the difference when you’re trying to reduce your stress levels.The goal is to find an activity that you enjoy and want to commit to participating in regularly.
It's a delicate balance between the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) and parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) nervous systems that keeps everything in check. A little bit of stress can be good for you. It can help you out of trouble when you're in danger or keep you motivated when you're trying to accomplish something important, but too much stress can be harmful.
Making Mindful Changes
In the end, stress happens. We can't control everything that happens in our lives, and many of the things that cause it are external. But at the very least, we can take control of how we react to them. The important thing is that you make a conscious effort to reduce your stress levels. Whether that’s trying the methods we shared in this article or seeking the help of a professional, do whatever works for you.
If you need support, connect with a Lotus Theory therapist today.
* Simpkins, C. A., & Simpkins, A. M. (2011). Zen Meditation in Psychotherapy: Techniques for Clinical Practice. John Wiley & Sons.
** Brown, K. W., Berry, D. J., Eichel, K., Beloborodova, P., Rahrig, H., & Britton, W. B. (2022). Comparing impacts of meditation training in focused attention, open monitoring, and mindfulness‐based cognitive therapy on emotion reactivity and regulation: Neural and subjective evidence from a dismantling study. Psychophysiology, 59(7). https://doi.org/10.1111/psyp.14024
*** Schultchen, D., Reichenberger, J., Mittl, T., Weh, T. R. M., Smyth, J. M., Blechert, J., & Pollatos, O. (2019). Bidirectional relationship of stress and affect with physical activity and healthy eating. British Journal of Health Psychology, 24(2), 315–333. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjhp.12355