We all like to think we handle stress effectively, but is that really the truth? Every day we are exposed to environmental stressors, physiological stressors, and most frequently emotional stressors. Such stressors differ in severity and affect us more than others. Unhealthy amounts of stress can cause serious effects on our brain, compromise our immune function, and lead to other health issues. It’s important to understand how stress affects the body for us to better manage it. I’ll explain a bit more in detail below.
When the human body reacts to stress, we activate our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is our fight-or-flight response that activates when we experience stress and cues the body to release epinephrine (adrenaline) into the bloodstream. The SNS can be viewed as the body’s “gas pedal” supplying us with the energy to fight or flee while the PNS (parasympathetic nervous system) acts like the “break” in order to calm the body after a stressful encounter. The PNS does this by telling the body to conserve energy by slowing down the heart rate, normalizing blood pressure, and promoting digestion and rest.
It has been shown that constant activation of the SNS disrupts the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The HPA axis consists of the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands; this system relies on hormonal signals in order to keep the SNS operating. It does this by telling the body to keep producing cortisol, our stress hormone, until the threat/stress passes or subsides. High levels of cortisol can also lead to an increase in appetite and fat storage.
Scientist Hans Selye, considered the “Father of Stress”, studied the potential negative consequences of the human autonomic nervous system and discovered that this system can be activated not only by physical stress but also mental stress too (Corbin & Welk, 2016). GeroScience, the internationally peer-reviewed Official Journal of the American Aging Association published an article last year showing the connection between chronic sympathetic nervous system overactivity and it’s role in the development of cardiovascular/cardiorespiratory diseases including aging, obesity, hypertension and heart failure (Balasubramanian, 2018). In addition, Harvard Medical School suggests that chronic stress contributs to hypertension, promotes the formation of artery-clogging deposits, and causes brain changes that may contribute to anxiety, depression, and addiction (Harvard Health Publishing, 2011).
Repeated exposure to stress increases irregular levels of epinephrine and cortisol impairs the ability of the immune system to work efficiently. This explains why some individuals tend to get sick after experiencing high amounts of stress. The PNS can’t prompt our bodies to rest and digest if we continually activate our SNS and HPA axis. This leads to our hormones becoming imbalanced which compromises our immune system and overall health. Additionally, stress can fatigue the body psychologically causing emotional strain, lack of sleep, insomnia, depression, headaches. Stress is also believed to deteriorate the length of telomers which are the protective ends of DNA strands resulting in an acceleration of the aging process (Corbin & Welk, 2016).
Let’s face it, stress is almost impossible to avoid entirely. Everyone experiences stress in different ways such as worrying of the future, career goals, physical appearance, relationships, finances, lack of sleep, the list goes on.
How we choose to approach and manage stress determines the impact it has on the body. Below, I’ll explain some different ways on how to manage stress and create more balance in your life. Ironically, stress is essential to us and we need to experience stress in order to adapt and grow. Think about your past for a second, some of the most stressful and major life events that we go through in life are the ones that help us grow and transform us as a person.
I’m significantly less stressed when I’m routinely performing in some sort of physical activity, managing my time more efficiently and seeking out social support from friends and family. Staying active has been shown to reduce stress by make people feel better, function better, and sleep better. Furthermore, managing time and having support from family and friends are great ways to keep motivated.
Another useful tip for managing stress that I personally love and find very useful is changing your outlook on stress. It’s very easy to get wrapped up in negative thoughts when facing a stressful circumstance and often we are too critical in certain situations. When I was completing my Philosophy degree, I had a professor lecture on the morals of the Stoic philosophy which developed in Athens in the early 3rd century BC. Stoicism focuses very little on the external world and its stimuli. Instead, Stoics are best known for being guided by wisdom and virtue, focusing solely on what was in their own control: their own actions, thoughts and beliefs. Most of the times we can’t control our exposure to stress or what is happening around us it would be wise to focus our attention to what we can control (thoughts, actions and beliefs). I like the following quote from Marcus Aurelius, “Choose not to be harmed and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed and you haven’t been.” I think there is real value in becoming the master of your emotions and not allowing them to negatively influence your actions or state of mind.
When experiencing stressful circumstances that are out of your control remember that you have a choice in how you approach any given situation. With a rational attitude, mindful perspective and more Stoic approach, your emotions and thoughts will submit to you. Become the master of your mindset and focus on the things within your control. Only then can we minimize the effects of stress on the body and mind.
Balasubramanian, P., & Hall, D. (2018, December). Sympathetic nervous system as a target for aging and obesity-related cardiovascular diseases. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6423215/
Corbin, C., & Welk, G. (2016). Concepts of Fitness and Wellness (11th ed.). McGraw-Hill.
Harvard Health Publishing. (2011, March). Understanding the stress response. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response