Stress is a normal part of life. Thankfully, it’s not all bad. In fact, some stress can be the thing that gives you an edge in a challenging situation. For example, when you’ve got a big presentation at work, stress can help you be more alert and motivated by boosting the flow of certain chemicals and hormones in your body.
Stress that comes and goes quickly isn’t usually harmful. However, a lot of the stress we experience today tends to linger. Technology, long work hours, current events, and financial difficulties can all contribute to stress that’s hard to escape. This type of persistent stress is the kind that can lead to some serious health issues.
Because stress plays such a big part in our lives, it’s important to know what it is and how it can affect our physical and mental health.
What is stress?
Stress is your body and brain responding to an external challenge. This can be anything from a long line at the grocery store to a big life change such as the death of a loved one.
There are three kinds of stress. They are:
- Acute stress. Short episodes of stress brought on by something that happens quickly like careless driving by a fellow commuter.
- Acute episodic. Stress that occurs regularly, e.g., deadlines at work.
- Chronic stress. Stress that results from ongoing events or big life changes such as job loss or the care of an older relative.
What are the symptoms of stress?
Stress can negatively affect your body, mood, and behavior. Here are some of the symptoms of stress on all three.
On your body:
- Muscle tension or pain
- Chest pain
- Change in sex drive
- Stomach upset
- Sleep problems
On your mood:
- Lack of motivation or focus
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Irritability or anger
- Sadness or depression
On your behavior:
- Overeating or undereating
- Angry outbursts
- Drug or alcohol misuse
- Tobacco use
- Social withdraw
- Exercising less often
What happens to your body when you experience stress?
When you experience stress, a part of your brain called the hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system, also known as the ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ response. The hypothalamus makes and sends out a chemical that tells the pituitary gland to release another chemical that signals the adrenal glands to release stress hormones (adrenalin and cortisol).
This chain reaction of chemicals and hormones enables your body to react, that is, ‘fight, flight, or freeze’, to resolve the situation. For example, they heighten your response time in a fight; pump blood to your extremities to help you flee; or boost your immune system to protect against a harmful pathogen.
The opposite of the ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ response is known as the ‘rest and digest’ response, or the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the response you want your body to revert to after you experience stress. However, with chronic stress, the parasympathetic nervous system doesn’t get a chance to kick in, so you end up feeling the effects of your stress constantly. Over time, this can have a negative impact on your health.
Stress and its impact on your health
Prolonged stress can do some serious harm to your health. Here’s a few ways you might experience its negative impact.
Heart disease. During stress, your body produces excessive amounts of hormones that cause your heart to beat faster and your blood vessels to narrow. This causes a temporary elevation of your blood pressure, which, if frequent, can damage your blood vessels, heart, and kidneys. Chronic stress and an unhealthy levels of stress hormones have been linked to heart disease, inflammation in the circulatory system, and heart attacks.
Diabetes. Stress encourages your body to increase energy levels to help you deal with the cause of the stress. As a result, your body releases more glucose into the blood stream which elevates your blood sugar levels. Consistent, chronic stress has been linked to an increased risk of diabetes.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBS is often caused by stress. This condition which affects the large intestine, can cause cramping, pain, bloating, and diarrhea or constipation. Stress can affect the movement and sensitivity of the intestines. Your central nervous system is linked to your gut function, so external stressors can trigger unpleasant and painful bowel symptoms. Stress can also affect the gut microbiome and the immune system, both of which are important for a well-functioning gut.
Age-related health issues. Stress may cause inflammation in the brain, potentially contributing to many mental health disorders. Stress also has been linked to depression which is a contributing risk factor for Alzheimer’s. However, not all stress is bad for the brain. Purpose-drive stress such as the kind that results from dealing with complex cognitive activities has been shown to help protect the brain and make it more resilient.
Stress and poor health choices
When feeling stress, some turn to unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, excessive use of alcohol, overeating, and reduced exercise or movement. While these may seem to temporarily reduce stress, over time they will make your stress and the above health issues worse.
Get in touch with a stress expert
At Nature’s Link, we believe that having a plan to reduce stress is as important as planning what you’re going to eat or when and how you’re going to exercise or move. If you need guidance to develop your plan to reduce stress, Dr. Kristine Devillier can help.
Dr. Devillier is a mind/body mentor, board-certified naturopath, and master herbalist. She brings more than 20 years’ experience and a wealth of knowledge about natural health to each consultation — providing easy-to-follow advice on physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. Dr. Devillier creates custom-made plans that fit your life and enable you to achieve your goals.
If you are ready to reduce stress in your life, call us on 337-332-2705 or reach us online to connect with one of our health experts. We proudly offer natural health consultations in Breaux Bridge, Lafayette, and the entire Acadiana area.