Chronic stress can have serious emotional, psychological, and physiological effects that contribute to or exacerbate many health problems. In fact, the negative health effects of chronic stress are like those of eating a poor diet or not getting enough physical activity. That said, managing stress, including getting enough sleep, is often overlooked as a key component of good health.
The effects of stress and the importance of stress management is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.
The word “stress” is typically used to indicate both the feeling of being “under a lot of stress” as well as the things that cause that feeling. The events and situations that cause stress are properly called stressors, which lead to a stress response that includes consequences we feel as well as physiological changes we may not notice.
The immediate effect of a stressor is called the “fight or flight” response since it prepares the body to deal with a dangerous situation. A classic example of this is a caveman who encounters a saber-toothed tiger, clearly a stress-inducing event.
The sympathetic nervous system is immediately activated, which raises heart rate and blood pressure to pump more blood to the muscles. Additionally, stored fat and carbohydrate fuels are broken down as fuel for the muscles. The adrenal glands release catecholamines (adrenaline) and cortisol (the stress hormone) to prolong and enhance this effect. This coordinated response makes sure the caveman’s body is ready for action. After the danger passes, everything returns to normal.
This physiological response is appropriate for major events like saber-toothed tiger encounters, but not for less perilous stressors like being stuck in traffic, pressure at work or home, and other personal and family issues. But the body responds with the same increase in blood pressure and hormones to them all. Unlike a rare saber-toothed tiger encounter, these stressors tend to occur on a daily basis, leading to continuous stress response.
The increase in hormones can lead to high blood pressure, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other chronic diseases. This is partly due to elevated levels of cortisol, a hormone that plays a role in storing fat and increasing appetite. While elevated cortisol during exercise (including running away from a saber-toothed tiger) is normal, chronic overproduction can have negative effects.
While it is impossible to avoid all stress in life, minimizing stressors and managing the way you respond to stress can have important benefits. To the extent that it is possible, avoiding stressful situations through better time management, setting realistic expectations for ourselves and with others, and learning to say “no” are common recommendations.
Learning how to deal with stressors to avoid the negative effects of stress is also important. Techniques that can be implemented in the heat of a stressful moment include taking a break from the situation, listening to calming music, and progressive relaxation. Even taking a deep breath can help.
Exercise has long been recognized as beneficial for reducing stress and the long-term effects of stress on your health. This includes doing something active during a stressful situation and exercising regularly to improve the way your body responds to stress. While all forms of exercise seem to work, much research and practice has focused on specific types of exercise including yoga and Tai Chi.
Other effective strategies traditionally include meditation and relaxation exercises. More and more research shows that getting enough sleep is also critical for reducing stress and the impact it has on your health. Eating a healthy diet can reduce the effects of stress as well.
The bottom line is that a healthy lifestyle includes stress management as well as a good diet and regular activity. Since all three are essential for good health, it would be wise to eat smart, move more, and chill out!