Stress. Just hearing the word might be enough to make your jaw clench up. But stress in and of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
You might be surprised to learn that stress has been the force behind much of human advancement. But when stress becomes a frequent occurrence, our lives can suffer. That’s because stress can put a damper on our moods and our ability to think clearly. It can also weaken our immune system and make us more vulnerable to illness. And being sick can only add to the pressure.
Let’s look at this phenomenon and explore some ways to manage stress:
Stress and immunity
Chronic stress means the nutrients needed to meet the demands of stress— for example, B vitamins— may become depleted. High cortisol levels may also reduce the presence of immune cells that limit the spread of certain viruses and tumors.
Stress and cardiovascular health
The stress hormone cortisol can wreak havoc on the cardiovascular system. Studies show that chronically high cortisol levels of certain markers can increase your risk of hypertension, stroke, and heart attack.
Stress and the gastrointestinal system
Chronic stress may also adversely affect your gastrointestinal system by either delaying or speeding up digestive processes. To that end, you might experience heartburn, indigestion, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, or belly pain. Even worse, chronic stress can trigger gastrointestinal inflammation and may be linked to conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, and inflammatory bowel disease.
Stress and diabetes
Stress can cause flare-ups of a pre-existing medical condition. For instance, people with diabetes are significantly affected by stress. That’s because physical or psychological stressors can inhibit insulin production, leading to complications. Unmanaged diabetes can be life-threatening so it’s something you don’t want to minimize.
Stress and inflammation
Do you feel like your allergies get worse when you’re frazzled? It’s not all in your head. Those suffering from asthma and allergies may also be more susceptible to attacks following a trigger. What’s more, researchers have found a link between stress and atopic dermatitis (an inflammatory skin condition), nasal congestion and asthma.
Stress and reproductive system
Chronic stress can mean missed or late periods, infertility and a drop in sexual desire. Some women find that their PMS or menopause symptoms are worse when they’re dealing with bouts of high stress. Excess amounts of cortisol in men can affect the normal biochemical functioning of their reproductive systems.
Stress is a part of life, but too much can wear on you and mean illness and disease if left unchecked. That’s why it’s important to have coping mechanisms in place to manage stress.
That said, the following strategies may be helpful for reducing stress levels:
Here are a few proven techniques to feel more grounded:
1) Breathwork: Get in the habit of shifting your awareness to your breath whenever you find yourself falling into negative thought patterns. There’s a lot to be said for learning how to work with your breathing to settle your nervous system.
2) Massage: Science tells us that the state of the mind and nervous system is reflected in the state of the body. That’s why bodywork is one means to help the body reset. Some kinds of massage are more relaxing than others. For instance, a medical massage usually involves therapeutic techniques. It’s often used to manage pain, reduce inflammation, improve circulation, relieve nerve compression, improve digestion, increase flexibility or address other chronic concerns.
3) Visualization and guided imagery: Visualization and guided imagery work because they have you concentrate on images held in your mind and work with the connection between the brain and the physical body. Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and picture yourself in a situation that brings you joy. Try to make the image bright and clear in your mind’s eye and recall the sights, sounds, smells and feelings associated with that encounter. How long you focus on it is less important than how regularly you do it. A few minutes every day practicing your visualization will serve you better than devoting a few hours on occasion.
4) Meditation: Researchers have come to the conclusion that controlling blood pressure, decreased heart and respiratory rate, increased blood flow, and other measurable signs of the relaxation response. If you want to give meditation a shot, look for a type that feels natural – one that suits you and your lifestyle. Keep in mind that all forms of meditation require regular, daily practice over a long period of time before you notice considerable results. Try to meditate every day for 20 to 30 minutes to get into the habit.
These are just a few ideas. You might find that integrating some or all of these into your daily routine might bear fruit. Speak with your integrative healthcare practitioner if you’re feeling like you need some help in addressing chronic stress and its effects.