Stress is something I’d like to consider myself an expert on, considering I’ve partaken in it almost daily for the span of my adult life. Stress is a tricky subject because there really is two ends of the sword – stress can be of value when it teaches you something, or helps prepare you for a big life event (or running away from a saber-toothed tiger). On the other end, chronic stress can be detrimental to our health when it’s putting relentless demands on our body and spirit – bad relationships, job loss, etc.
I spent a good portion of my early adult life working for a very crappy employer who put an emphasis on degrading employees as a way of motivating them. I was completely frazzled almost daily, sometimes leaving work in tears. I really started to doubt my worth. Looking back, I should have left the situation earlier than I did, when your stuck in a no-win situation the best thing you can do for your body is move on. That was something I unfortunately learned the hard way. I was eventually laid off, and while it was the most stressful event at the time, it was actually the best thing that ever happened to me.
How Stress Works on the Body
According to an article from the American Psychological Association regarding the role stress plays on the body (1), chronic stress can cause a myriad of health concerns that can eventually lead to more illness. When our body is a stressed state, the muscles tense up to protect us from pain. This is a mechanism of the body in place to protect us, but when it’s chronically stressed migraines and tension headaches begin to appear.
Chronic stress can also put a damper on your adrenal system and stomach. Stress signals from the hypothalamus cause the adrenal cortex to produce cortisol and the adrenal medulla to produce epinephrine, a process that gives your body energy to run from a saber-toothed tiger, not so much a crappy job.
Stress and Hormonal Health
Chronic stress also plays a huge role in hormonal health as well, as I discovered first hand with my PCOS. According to the book “The Hormone Cure” by Dr. Sara Gottfried (2), progesterone is a pre-hormone to cortisol (your main stress hormone that is produced to give you energy in stressful situations). When you are in a constant state of stress, your body is working overtime to produce cortisol and your body is using it up faster than it is produced. When this happens and your body is looking for more cortisol, it takes from cortisol’s pre-hormones pregnenolone and progesterone.
Cortisol also blocks progesterone receptors when cortisol levels are high. This can cause those oh so lovely PMS symptoms: anxiety, fluid retention, and breast tenderness. I know it my situation it was responsible for my panic attacks, and horrible pain during my menstrual cycles. Hormonal therapies can help in the short-term, but in the end it’s the stress that has to change. Easier said than done right?
Forms of Stress
There’s many lifestyle factors that play a role in our overall stress, not just a demanding workload. Here are some of the other factors can play a role in the way your body is stressed:
- Lack of Sleep – Stress and not getting enough good quality sleep that your body needs is really a vicious cycle that will continue on until you disrupt it. Many of us have had those nights – laying awake staring starry-eyed at the ceiling thinking about what so and so said to us earlier in the day that was so rude, or about the huge presentation you have in the morning that you’re not prepared for. This in turn leads to higher levels of stress once the morning comes because your body doesn’t have the energy it needs to function at its peak. This can also lead to heightened anxiety as well. Developing a sleep routine at night that includes letting go of the stressors of the day is a good place to start to improving your sleep. You can also read more of my tips for developing a sleep routine here.
- Exercise – Exercise is also one of those tricky double-edged swords when it comes to stress – do it enough and your body will be able to adequately handle mental stressors, do it too much and you’ll actually be doing more harm than good. According to an article published in Harvard Health Publications (3), The mental benefits of aerobic exercise actually have a neurochemicals basis. Exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones including adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators. Endorphins are responsible for the “runner’s high” and for the feelings of calm and optimism that can come with many hard workouts. Meditation and yoga are also great exercises for the mind, and you can read more about my experiences with that here.
- Nutrition – The way you fuel your body can also cause stress. Nutritional deficiencies and not eating enough will cause stress on your body.
Now that you can see stress can impact our health in many different ways, what are some of the ways you can combat stress?
How to Combat Stress
- Meditation – I can’t sing the praises of a good meditation program enough for handling stress. When I was at my worst with my panic attacks, under the guidance of a life coach I was advised to meditate for twenty minutes morning and night daily for two weeks. When you’re experiencing severe panic attacks and your thoughts are your own worst enemy, this really seems like a monumental task. Yet, when you give yourself permission to not be perfect, it is actually one of the most freeing things you can do when it comes to your mind. One of my favorite apps is the Calm app, featuring many free guided meditations you can practice anywhere.
- Build a Tribe – Social interaction is a great way to combat stress as well. Interacting with others who share in your ideals and beliefs can really help you to find calm in any storm. Your people are the ones who get you.
- Exercise – What’s actually good about exercise is you can eliminate two birds with one stone if you participate in group classes, you can get a great workout and build your confidence surrounded by others similar to you. I found that participating in group classes at the gym really helped me to deal with stressors, as well as the way I handle social situations.
- Develop a Nighttime Routine – Lights that emanate from televisions and cellphones can make your body think it’s still daylight, in turn making it hard for you to sleep. I know when I don’t put the cellphone down before bed, I tend to wake up in the middle of the night. If your favorite shows are on late at night, record them so you can watch the next day. Set boundaries when it comes to work, and set a cutoff time for answering any work related emails or phone calls, it can seriously wait till the next day. Meditating before bed with essential oils in a diffuser is a great way to unwind from the day.
- Supplement Wisely – I use a pure magnesium spray before I go to sleep at night, and it helps ease restlessness and irritability from the day. There are also magnesium supplements in powder form you can get from your local organic food store (Natural Calm is a very popular brand). L-Theanine is an amino acid commonly found in green tea that is used to calm anxiety. You can find it in supplement form, but I get it from drinking a cup of matcha green tea every morning (tastes great too!). It’s very important that you work with your doctor before you begin taking anything for stress to make sure it’s right for you and your individual needs.
- Tovian, S., Thorn, B., Coons, H., Labott, S., Burg, M., Surwit, R., and Bruns, D. Stress Effects on the Body. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-body.aspx
- Gottfried, S. (2013). The Hormone Cure. New York, NY: Scribner
- Harvard Health Publications (2011, February). Exercising to Relax. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/exercising-to-relax