In our busy world, it seems like everyone is feeling the effects of stress. Balancing a busy job and a family, classes, or an active lifestyle can feel overwhelming at times. Our bodies can handle short bursts of stress just fine, but a study by Ohio State University has shown that chronic long-term stress can have some very serious side effects, including increasing systemic inflammation that can be a precursor to many health issues.
understanding the stress response
Under natural circumstances, your body responds to stress by releasing adrenaline and cortisol to boost your heart rate and blood sugar, and redirect energy away from your immune system and digestion/elimination. Ideally this is only for a short time, and once the “threat” is over everything returns to normal. Unfortunately we’ve learned to hold on to chronic stress, which impacts most of the systems in our bodies.
Symptoms of chronic stress
Recognizing the symptoms of chronic stress is the first step in the right direction:
- Emotional/Cognitive symptoms can include anxiety, an inability to focus, feeling overwhelmed, forgetfulness, increased use of alcohol and drugs, and procrastination.
- Physical symptoms include insomnia, upset stomach, chronic tension in the neck, shoulders, or back, headaches, clenching the jaw or teeth grinding, and frequent colds or infections that last longer than usual.
Consequences of chronic stress
The consequences of living with long-term, chronic stress are many. They include:
- anxiety/panic attacks
- high blood pressure
- eating disorders
- skin problems such as acne, psoriasis, or eczema
- hair loss
- elevated systemic inflammation
- gastrointestinal issues
- cardiovascular issues including heart disease and increased risk of stroke
what can you do?
When we’re stressed, we tend to take shallow breaths, which encourages the stress response to continue and even increase. We can break that cycle by pausing and taking a few deep, slow breaths. Count to 4 as you inhale, pause, then count again as you exhale, and pause. Repeat 2-3 times. Chances are, you’ll feel a little more relaxed, calmer and more able to focus.
2. Explore self-care
Massage, yoga, meditation, reading, journaling, listening to (or making) music, making art, and spending time in nature are all common things that help to relieve stress. The key is to find what works for you, and then commit to doing it on a regular basis.
3. Avoid the “ostrich syndrome”
Ignoring whatever is causing your stress will only prolong the effects. For instance, procrastination may make you feel better in the short-term, but in reality it’s increasing your stress over the long-term. Pick one thing to do each day that will relieve your stress, and you’ll not only feel better, you’ll be moving in the right direction.