Chronic Stress Can Wreak Havoc on Your Mind and Body
Feeling constantly under attack? According to a new report on the Mayo Clinic website, it may just be a case of your body naturally treating minor hassles as full-blown threats.
But you don’t have to let stress control your life, author Dana Sparks says.
When you encounter a perceived threat, Sparks writes, citing the example of being barked at by a large dog on your morning walk, your hypothalamus, a tiny region at your brain’s base, sets off an alarm system in your body.
Through a combination of nerve and hormonal signals, this system prompts your adrenal glands, located atop your kidneys, to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.
Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts energy supplies. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances your brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues.
Cortisol also curbs functions that would be nonessential or harmful in a fight-or-flight situation. It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes. This complex natural alarm system also communicates with the brain regions that control mood, motivation and fear.
Natural Stress Gone Wild
For most of us, the body’s natural stress response is self-limiting.
Once a perceived threat has passed, hormone levels return to normal. As adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, your heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels, and other systems resume their regular activities.
But when stressors are always present and you constantly feel under attack, that fight-or-flight reaction stays turned on.
The long-term activation of the stress response system and the overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones that follow can disrupt almost all your body’s processes. This puts you at increased risk of many health problems, including:
- Digestive problems
- Muscle tension and pain
- Heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure and stroke
- Sleep problems
- Weight gain
- Memory and concentration impairment
That’s why it’s so important to learn healthy ways to cope with your life stressors.
Stress Management Strategies
Common stress management strategies include:
- Eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise and getting plenty of sleep
- Practicing relaxation techniques such as yoga, deep breathing, massage or meditation
- Keeping a journal and writing about your thoughts or what you’re grateful for in your life
- Taking time for hobbies, such as reading, listening to music, or watching your favorite show or movie
- Fostering healthy friendships and talking with friends and family
- Having a sense of humor and finding ways to include humor and laughter in your life, such as watching funny movies or looking at joke websites
- Volunteering in your community
- Organizing and prioritizing what you need to accomplish at home and work and removing tasks that aren’t necessary
- Seeking professional counseling, which can help you develop specific coping strategies to manage stress
- Avoid unhealthy ways of managing your stress, such as using alcohol, tobacco, drugs or excess food. If you’re concerned that your use of these products has increased or changed due to stress, talk to your health care provider.
The rewards for learning to manage stress can include peace of mind, less stress and anxiety, a better quality of life, improvement in conditions such as high blood pressure, better self-control and focus, and better relationships. And it might even lead to a longer, healthier life, Sparks writes.
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