It’s pretty intuitive that reducing stress in your everyday life can make you happier and healthier. But what makes stress such a powerful indicator of overall well-being in the first place? Let’s dive into exactly how stress affects the body and mind and how stress management can do everything from improve your mood to boost immune function and promote longevity.
The science of stress and its relationship to disease.
When you become stressed, the brain undergoes both chemical and physical changes that affect its overall functioning. During periods of high stress, certain chemicals within the brain, including the neurotransmitters dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine, begin to rise, causing larger amounts of these and other “fight-or-flight” hormones such as adrenaline to be released by the adrenal glands. The release of these chemicals contributes to certain physiological effects, including rapid heart rate, higher blood pressure, and a weakened immune system. When left unmanaged over time, chronic stress can lead to the development of other serious problems, such as stomach ulcers, stroke, asthma, and heart disease.
Many health care professionals also consider chronic stress a significant risk factor for illnesses such as cancer and heart attacks. One reason is that our body’s physical reactions to prolonged stress may accumulate slowly and go unnoticed in our attempts to adapt to ongoing stress. However, even if it seems we’re building a tolerance to stress, our nervous system is still dealing with an overload, which can seriously affect overall health in the long run. One of the most common physical reactions to stress is the tensing of muscles, which can ultimately trigger tension headaches, migraines, and other musculoskeletal conditions. Stress is also hard on your digestive system, as it affects which nutrients your intestines absorb, influences how quickly food moves through your body, and can provoke you to eat more or less than you normally do. The disruption of your body’s natural digestive processes can cause nausea, pain, vomiting, heartburn, constipation, acid reflux, or diarrhea.
In addition to the various physical effects of stress, it can also contribute to a number of mental and emotional disorders, including anxiety, phobias, and panic attacks. This emotional stress can make it difficult to focus, make decisions, think things through, or remember things. Stress may also cause irritability, making you easily frustrated and impatient with others, and can even contribute to depression, anger, feelings of insecurity, and relationship conflicts. While the many physical effects of stress can be overwhelming, it is important not to ignore these psychological effects as they also play a large part in overall health and vitality.
Stress management techniques to look into.
So, what can you do to shift yourself into a healthier pattern and reduce stress? One of the most effective and rewarding techniques is meditation, which encourages you to relax your mind and examine your inner self with a sense of honesty and compassion rather than judgment and criticism.
Engaging in regular moderate exercise such as walking, yoga, or swimming has proven stress-reducing benefits, as exercise releases positive stress-busting endorphins and can increase self-confidence and lower the symptoms associated with anxiety and depression. In combination with daily activity, eating a healthy whole foods diet rich in dark greens and chlorophyll-containing foods is helpful for treating stress. Since chronic stress can strip your body of essential B vitamins, it is important to obtain these nutrients, as well as magnesium and calcium, through diet or supplementation.* Remember to avoid caffeine and sugar, as these stimulants can contribute to stress and depression.
Getting adequate sleep is also imperative to reducing stress. Stress can physically wear out your body, and without sleep, you will feel the effects of stress much more. Finally, work to reduce stress by learning to think differently. Knowing when to let something go and thinking positively about your life will help prevent you from being upset about minor things and worrying that you aren’t good enough. Supervising your thought process is only part of the battle, but if you work at easing stress with healthy lifestyle and diet changes, you can largely avoid escalating anxiety issues.
Isaac Eliaz, M.D., M.S., LAc is a respected author, lecturer, researcher, and clinical practitioner. He is the founder and medical director of Amitabha Medical Clinic in Santa Rosa,…