Stress is a normal part of life. It’s a physical response to events that make us feel threatened, also known as “fight or flight.” Some of us thrive on higher levels of stress, while others are much more sensitive.The good news is it’s possible to define, take on, and prevent daily stressors.
How Stress Works
Our stress response comes from the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). Conversely, our Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) promotes a relaxation response. It’s obviously in our best interest to keep the balance tilted toward PNS, but modern society makes that more challenging. Money, politics, social media, health concerns, and plenty of other daily stressors pop up every day.
Stress can be good when channeled in a healthy way, but chronic stress commonly contributes to health problems ranging from high blood pressure and heart disease to infertility and rapid aging. Long-term chronic stress can accelerate the deterioration of important brain functions.
Health Dangers of Chronic Stress
The chronic presence of cortisol, the stress hormone, can dramatically degenerate the brain. High cortisol levels over long periods of time can injure and even kill the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for learning new skills.
The Limbic System, our stress regulator, is closely tied to hormonal activity. When we perceive a threat, the Limbic System responds turns on and off various hormones and digestive functions to give the body what it needs. It then memorizes the trigger so it can respond faster next time. Chronic stress can overwork this system and cause hormonal imbalance.
Overproduction of stress hormones can eventually shut down functions that allow for growth, reproduction, and immunity. With stress levels at an all-time high in today’s society, you can see why issues like chronic illness, digestion problems, and sexual dysfunction are so common. Reproduction, digestion, and fighting off illness are low priorities to your body when it thinks you’re in an emergency.
Psychological dysfunction can also arise from chronic stress. Anxiety, panic attacks, and pain disorders can become unexplainable problems. Anxiety can be a rational response to a perceived threat, but a chronic state of anxiousness can alter the brain chemistry to the point where it responds irrationally and uncontrollably to everyday situations. Initial symptoms of this include an inability to focus, shortness of breath, abdominal pain, and hand tremors.
How to Handle Stress
So how can we make stress manageable? Many times stress comes from the feeling of having to tackle major problems alone. Here are a few suggestions on how to confront these issues:
- Develop a support network of friends and family. Loneliness and isolation drastically increases susceptibility to stressors.
- Gain control with preparation. Reduce stressful surprises by maintaining a strict schedule.
- Evaluate your stressors so you know what to look for. They are far easier to handle when you can identify them.
- Expose yourself to constant positive reinforcement. Turn off the news, avoid negative people, read uplifting books, and most importantly, find a reason to laugh!
- Unplug on a regular basis. Instant access to an ocean of information is unhealthy, and often puts us in a bad mood. Get outside for some fresh air and exercise!
- Exercise, period. Our bodies are made to move, and exercise can come in many different forms. Join a casual sports league. Take regular walks and jogs (this is extra easy if you have a dog). Exercise releases endorphins into the bloodstream that directly combat negative cortisol. It’s also very effective therapy!
Don’t let stress get you down. If you would like to learn more, listen to episode 8 of the ICONiCAST podcast.
Yours in Health,
Joseph Brilliant, D.C.