Stress, how do you feel just reading that word?
A tightening in the body and a shallowness to the breath are the first signs you might notice. Stress is so huge in our modern world it’s become part of everyday life for many people. Today we are delving into the consequences that prolonged stress has on your body, and then going into some strategies and tools that you can use to help lessen its effects in your life. Let’s start with an overview of the 3 stages of the stress response.
The 3 Stages of Stress
Firstly, let’s look at what happens to your body when it experiences prolonged states of stress.
In the initial acute stage of stress adrenaline is released in large amounts within your body. This surge is meant to be short lived, however our modern lifestyles with huge workloads, deadlines, over consumption of caffeine, lack of sleep and constantly pinging technology prolongs this acute stage of stress. The effects of adrenaline on your body include increasing your heart rate and blood pressure, diverting your blood away from digestion, causing higher blood sugar levels and heightened alertness. You can imagine the daily dysfunction this can cause when stress is prolonged without reprieve.
The second stage of the stress response occurs when your body experiences high cortisol levels. This can further dysregulate blood sugar, cause muscle wastage and weight gain, high cholesterol and triglycerides and a whole lot more.
In the final stage of stress your body doesn’t produce enough cortisol. It’s been under so much pressure trying to keep up with the cortisol demand, that it just can’t anymore. This is often referred to as adrenal fatigue. In this stage you can experience a deep unrelenting fatigue, muscular stiffness and pain that is especially worse in the morning, and severe brain fog.
The most common symptoms of stress
- Outer third of eyebrow falls out
- Eyesight worsens
- Muscles break down
- Body fat increases
- Blood glucose is dysregulated
- Hair, skin and nails may be poor
- Heart rate and blood pressure increase
- Immune system dysfunction, frequent infections
- Low mood or anxiety
- Female cycle changes
- Poor fertility
- Bloating and digestive upset
- IBS symptoms
- Insomnia, poor sleep quality
- Brain fog
So far it can seem like prolonged stress is a lot of doom and gloom, however there is good news!
Read on to find out more.
How can I manage my stress levels proactively?
High and prolonged levels of stress are most often lifestyle related, and this means that we have some wonderful lifestyle interventions that can see you recover from high stress loads and go on to thrive. Some of these tools include daily movement, whole foods, lots of laughter, breath work and consciously making time for relaxation. Let’s have a look in a bit more detail at some of these.
Meditation is a stillness practice that gives you time to relax your mind and find stillness within. It has been rigorously proven to reduce stress levels and soothe an overly busy mind. Some of the known benefits of this practice include:
- Improved stress response
- Lowered blood pressure
- Reduced headaches
- Reduction in mood disturbances such as anxiety and depression
- Lowered reactivity to everyday life situations
- Better attention and more presence and awareness in your daily life
And a whole lot more.
If you’ve never tried meditation before then short, guided sessions are a great entry point. 10 minutes is plenty enough for you to begin noticing a daily difference in the way you respond to stress. You may also notice that it also helps with mental chatter and reactivity.
Deep Diaphragm Breathing
There is only one way that science knows how to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), and that is through deep breathing. The PNS controls your ability to rest, digest and slow down. If you’ve never consciously used your diaphragm to breathe before, here is how you do it:
Place your hands on your belly button. Take a long, slow deep breath in through your nose to the count of 4 and pay attention to your hands. They should move up and outwards as your lungs expand and move your diaphragm muscles. Once your lungs are full, take a pause for a few seconds, and then let your breath out slowly and steadily through your nostrils to the count of 4. You will notice that your belly shrinks back in towards your spine on this exhale.
Once you’ve exhaled, pause again for a few seconds before inhaling once more. Repeat this slow steady breath 10 times and notice how different you feel after this practice. The beauty of this practice is that you can use it anywhere and in any moment that you feel yourself getting tense. It’s also wonderful to do when you get into bed at night, as it prepares you for a restful night’s sleep.
Eat Whole Food
The effect of food on your body and how it experiences stress is profound! By choosing wholefoods that are in the form that nature made them, you give your body the best chance of building resilience against stress. Fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, wholegrains and organic animal products and meats give you all the nutritional building blocks for a robust body and stress response.
Also, lets talk coffee for a hot minute. If you are really stressed, it’s time for a coffee break. If you feel your stress is manageable, limit your intake to one coffee in the morning, so that it doesn’t affect your rest at night. This step can be a hard pill to swallow, as many of us are quite addicted to caffeine. Giving it a break though allows your body to recalibrate and will help you manage your stress load much easier.
The natural world also has a profound impact on the human body and allows us to release stress and come back into balance with nature. Nothing else does this in quite the same way. When we immerse ourselves in nature and use all our senses to experience the moment, we allow our stress to be laid to rest for a time, and our mind and body to recalibrate. Going for a nature walk, taking an ocean swim, sitting in your garden, even doing some gardening, and enjoying the sunshine; these are all very beneficial in stress reduction and overall wellness.