Your boss is pressuring you with a tight deadline, you’re caring for a sick kid or parent, your car just broke down, or your bank account is running on empty and you have an unexpected expense. There’s no doubt about it; these things are stressful. However, did you know that how you deal with that stress can have a huge impact on your health?
Stress is a natural reaction that helps you cope with serious life events or emergencies. In the moment, your body’s reaction to stress is helpful. Something called the Fight or Flight response kicks in and releases hormones that increase your heart rate and respiration, tenses your muscles for action, and helps your mind focus on the crisis at hand. At the same time, your Fight or Flight reaction also shuts down some of your body’s systems that you don’t need in dealing with the imminent danger. For example, your digestion, immunity, reproductive function, and even some functions of your brain are put on the back burner until the crises has settled down.
The reason why stress has such an impact on your body is that the nature of our modern life is that stress is ongoing and it often never settles down. Chronic stress keeps your body in a low level of Fight or Flight. This means that many people are living their lives in a heightened state of alert and the physiological changes that accompany the stress response. As a result, there are an endless number of symptoms and conditions that can be attributed to long-term, unabated stress. Among them:
- Chronic headaches, especially tension headaches. In addition, stress can be a trigger for people who suffer from migraines.
- Heartburn. Stress can increase your body’s production of stomach acid, setting you up for heartburn or reflux symptoms.
- Other digestive issues. In addition to heartburn, stress can suppress your appetite, give you a stomachache, cause diarrhea or constipation, and be the underlying source for irritable bowel conditions.
- Insomnia. If your mind is racing while you should be sleeping, stress may be to blame. Stress can interrupt your sleep, too, making it hard for you to drop off or stay asleep, or in severe cases it can keep you awake all night.
- Depression. Over time, chronic stress can wear you down, giving way to frustration, irritability, anger, and ultimately depression.
- Weakened immune system. During the Fight or Flight response, immunity it put on hold. If the response is prolonged, it can keep your immunity suppressed, making you more vulnerable to colds, flu, or other illnesses.
- Increased risk for Type 2 Diabetes. Stress impacts the interplay of your hormones, increasing cortisol and adrenaline, and suppressing insulin, which ushers glucose into your cells. In addition, during stressful times, your liver releases extra glucose, resulting in elevated blood sugar. Coupled with decreased insulin, chronically high levels of glucose (blood sugar) increase your risk for Type 2 Diabetes.
- Hypertension. When you’re stressed, your heart pumps faster and stress hormones cause your blood vessels to tighten. Long-lasting stress can increase your risk not only for high blood pressure, but also for a heart attack.
- Muscle tension. When you’re stressed, your muscles become tense. Over the long term, however your tense muscles can produce neck and shoulder pain, muscle spasms, tooth clenching or TMJ problems, and headaches.
While it’s clear that long-term stress can sabotage your health, doing something about it can be stressful, too. When you’re busy, overwhelmed, or just trying to get through your day, adding one more thing to your To Do list can feel like too much. However, there are a number of actions you can take that are worthwhile because they’re effective, but also are enjoyable and some don’t take much time.
- Get some acupuncture. Scientists have found that acupuncture increases the circulation of calming neurotransmitters in your brain to help lower stress and stabilize your mood. A few relaxing acupuncture sessions can also help balance your hormones, including your body’s stress hormones. Acupuncture is also a safe, effective, and natural way to treat stress-related illnesses or symptoms. The bottom line is that acupuncture is one of stress relief’s best kept secrets!
- Breathe. You may have heard this before and thought it sounds overused and ineffective. However, the reality is that taking a few deep breaths or slowing your breathing down sends a message to your brain to activate your parasympathetic nervous system—to rest and digest. In other words, slow deep breathing helps you slow down and chill out.
- Take a walk. Moving your body boosts your circulation, physically and emotionally takes you out of a stressful situation, and increases the circulation of endorphins, the feel good chemicals in your brain responsible for a sensation of calm and well-being.
- Vent. Sometimes just talking, or even ranting, about what’s bugging you can be incredibly helpful in clearing your mind and allowing you to move forward without feeling so overwhelmed.
- Do something you find fun or joyful. When you’re stressed, often self-care is the first thing you abandon. However, finding some time for the things you enjoy makes it easier to cope with the stress at hand.
Adding any of these activities to your day or week can help tamp down the pressure and lower your risk for stress-related health problems. Pick one (or more!) and make it a habit. Your body will thank you.
Cindy Chamberlain is an acupuncturist in Overland Park, KS and the founder of Eastern Healing Solutions, LLC. She is licensed in Kansas and Missouri and has been practicing traditional Chinese medicine since 1996.