We’ve all experienced varying levels of stress at some point in our lives. In fact, stress is a natural part of life. Contrary to popular belief, not all stress is bad. Short periods of stress can be beneficial because they can give us extra energy to accomplish more. However, as most health professionals will tell you, chronic stress can be problematic since it can actually change your body.
In order to understand how stress changes your body, we must first understand what happens to the body when you experience stress. Stressful situations cause the adrenal glands above your kidneys to release a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol essentially gives your body a boost of energy to address the stressful situation. Once the threat or stressful situation has passed, the body will return to normal and cortisol levels will stabilize.
However, those who experience chronic stress will not recover and they will maintain high cortisol levels. High levels of cortisol tell the body to trigger the fight or flight response. This means that your alertness and heart rate will increase, while other functions not associated with the fight or flight response will be reduced. Specific functions affected by cortisol levels include:
- Regulating blood pressure
- Reducing inflammation
- Controlling the sleep/wake cycle
- Increasing blood sugar
- Boosting energy levels
- Managing how the body uses fats, carbs, and proteins
Unfortunately, high cortisol levels affect these functions in different ways and some may even temporarily cease. As a result, high levels of cortisol are associated with several health conditions such as depression, anxiety, heart disease, headaches, problems concentrating, digestive problems, trouble sleeping, and weight gain.
Eventually your adrenal glands will wear out from producing an excessive amount of cortisol and will gradually start to produce less and less. As this happens, you will begin to experience fatigue. Chronic stress also interferes with the communication between your immune system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which can cause chronic fatigue, metabolic disorders like diabetes and obesity, depression, and immune disorders.
Since stress is a normal part of everyday life, it is impossible to eliminate it entirely. However, you can learn how to manage your stress in order to prevent or minimize chronic stress and its effect on the body. The first step to managing stress is learning how to identify when you feel stressed so that you can take steps to decrease your stress. In some cases, this may mean making certain lifestyle changes to cut out or minimize stressors. In other cases, you may need to implement a variety of stress management strategies in order to deal with stress in a healthy way.
When it comes to stress management strategies, it may be trial and error until you find something that works for you. However, once you find it, be sure to stick with it. Some examples of stress management strategies include:
- Having a healthy social support network
- Regular physical exercise or activity
- Getting enough sleep each night
- Listen to music
- Play with a pet
- Take a nap
- Take a walk
- Set aside time for leisure activities and relaxation