The American Psychological Association says 80% of US have reported heightened stress about economic security. No kidding! Stress is in the news a lot lately and for good cause at times. In fact stress in your life does not have to be all bad but sometimes it can be disastrous.
Programmed for Stress
A certain level of anxiety can be useful, helping you take swift action when needed. We call this the stress response. It is a biological response designed to keep you safe!
Let’s start with a little Biology. The main hormones involved, cortisol, adrenaline and closely related nor-adrenaline are excreted by the adrenal gland. As shown in my diagram the adrenal gland sits on top of the kidney. It is a very under appreciated organ for it’s size since it’s impact on your body state is quite impressive.
Fight or Flight
A shot of adrenaline is what produces those feelings you have after a near miss accident in the traffic or the run in with the neighbours bull terrier. Basically it prepares your body for one of two actions -flight or fight. It does this by impacting on the major body systems that will enhance your chances of survival when something stressful or life threatening occurs.
So for example if you are going to fight or fly then it is useful to increase the energy generating centres of your body - heart rate rises, blood sugar peaks, blood pressure increases, breathing changes(deeper and faster), blood vessels to the heart, lungs, skeletal muscles and brain open up wider to increase blood flow and the vessels to your skin and digestive organs become narrower.
Now the purpose of all this is obvious – if you are going to run away then the boost of blood to the muscles gives you a supercharged start with lots of sugar – the brain is super attentive to the dangers and your senses are at optimum. If however, you have to fight then you are in peak mode to defend yourself and less blood to the skin means less bleeding if you are injured, and did I mention that your blood clotting time shortens during all this?
A marvelous body response that we have developed over thousands of generations – and when we live in the wilds it keeps us alive! A response to life threatening stress!
21st Century Stress
Now let’s drop back a gear and consider our daily living in a modern city. Far less lions and bears to be triggering your stress reaction you would think. However, the activities and interactions you have each day are capable of triggering this response and you may not notice it after a while. So what we end up with is a low level of stress hormones tripping around your body on a regular basis with the odd spike when you cop a bit of frustration.
Now after a number of years of this your body starts to fatigue! Just like an athlete who has over trained you stress system can start to malfunction and you start to suffer from the mixed up balance of stress hormones.
Health Implications of Stress
To help you get a real grip on the consequences of ongoing stress let’s examine just one hormone which can be raised by our hectic lifestyles and consider some of the consequences:
Cortisol, another adrenal stress hormone, is a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. At low levels it has a central role in the flight or fight mechanism. But at higher sustained levels it can trigger:
- Impaired cognitive performance (you can’t think straight)
- Reduced thyroid function (energy levels all over the place)
- Blood sugar imbalances such as hyperglycaemia
- Decreased bone density
- Loss of muscle tissue
- Higher blood pressure
- Lowered immunity and inflammatory responses, slower wound healing
- Increased abdominal fat
Great not only are you going to be stressed your going to get a fat belly as well.
I suspect that now I have caused you a deal of stress worrying about your stress levels!
So How Do We De-Stress
You can learn to relax your body with various stress management techniques, and you can make lifestyle changes in order to keep your body from reacting to stress in the first place. So precisely what can we do to reduce the serious side effects.
There are number of options that I will just list here and maybe detail later, but a simple search of the web will get you more detail:
- Journaling: keep a diary or journal. You write about what is happening in your life and how you feel!
- Yoga and Meditation: the exercise and quiet times of yoga practices are renowned for reducing stress.
- Listen to music: Music can quiet the savage beast so …..
- Breathing exercises: a whole range of deep breathing activities can wash stress away.
- Sex: honest! If you think I’m kidding follow the link
Finally I would encourage you to learn more about the stress mechanism and through this knowledge you will be more alert to how you feel. With this alertness will come awareness and with the awareness opportunity to do something about it before it harms you.
A good place to start is Reprogram Your Mind For Success, Dean discusses more of the body chemistry and the techniques you can use to reduce stress and get those hormones back to normal levels.
A GP once told me (at the age of 45) that the stress in my life would kill me if I did not change my job. He said I would be lucky to see 50 if I did not take some serious action. Well practicing some of the ideas discussed in Dean’s book (meditation, Yoga, leaving my job) meant I celebrated my 50th in March 2009 as fit and happy as I have ever been.
So take action NOW
Until next time