By Duffy Perkins 2017-12-30 11:38:08
»»» The cumulative effects of stress can take years off your life. Listen, learn and understand what your body is trying to tell you. If you are a working adult, the question isn’t, “Do you face stress in your everyday pace of life?” That’s a given. The question to ask is, “how much stress are you managing” as you cope with numerous tasks related to family, career, household and all the other pressures you encounter that are beyond your immediate control. In much the same way that our brains have learned to multi-task our daily responsibilities and the curve balls we encounter, our bodies have found ways to multi-task the effects of these stressors. While brain and body typically establish a manageable situation that allows us to keep on keeping on—it doesn’t come without a cost. And our abilities to cope are not limitless. There are consequences on our bodies’ ability to respond over time. Stress ultimately comes in two forms: acute and chronic. Acute stress is that momentary or short-term anxiety—think meeting a deadline, driving in traffic or being late. Chronic stress is a constant or near-constant state of this anxiety over a prolonged period of time. We are often living with chronic stress without recognizing it, simply because our culture enforces the idea that stress is a sign of production. Your body, however, tells a different story. In just the way that viruses attack our bodies, pressure and anxiety can wreak havoc on the same systems. And it’s not only the chronic stress, but often the little acute stresses that do the most damage. Let’s take a look at how stress does much more than compel you to bite your nails, bark at a colleague or replay mental tapes in the wee hours of the night. STRESS & THE NERVOUS SYSTEM Stressful situations can cause a trigger in the sympathetic nervous system, alerting the body to either “fight or flight” by making the adrenal glands release two hormones: adrenaline and cortisol. This response is a product of evolution. Your body is still programmed to protect itself from what it considers imminent, life-or-death dangerous situations. The same hormones that allowed our ancestors to avoid being eaten by tigers are today being used to get through a difficult conversation with the boss or deal with unruly children. The key to the sympathetic nervous system’s response is that it was meant to be temporary. But modern human beings often deal with acute stress on some level all day long. When we’re at work, we’re continually receiving text messages from family members asking questions that demand immediate answers. When we’re stuck in traffic, we’re attempting to focus on the (often unpleasant) news and events of the world. For those of us who prefer to fall asleep with the television on, we’re attempting to relax ourselves into sleep, but actually giving our brains the instruction to process even more information. The sympathetic nervous system’s reactions reverberate all through the rest of the body, affecting other systems, in turn. STRESS & THE MUSCULOSKELETAL SYSTEM Imagine you’re at work, the last meal period has concluded and before you begin your clean-up responsibilities, you’re taking a quick moment by yourself to check your phone and review social media posts or text messages. You’re trying to give up smoking, so you have the contraband known as chewing gum in your mouth. All of a sudden, your boss is standing in front of you, asking you a direct question. Just imagining this scenario might create a tense feeling in your body, because stress causes an almost immediate reflex reaction to stress. Your muscles tighten to guard against imminent movement or pain—ready to either run from that tiger (boss) or fight it to the death (defend your actions). In an ideal scenario, the stress passes quickly and the body is able to relax again. Your shoulders will lower, you’ll take a deep breath and find it’s possible to have a thoughtful conversation with the boss. Your body has processed the acute stress. The problem with modern culture is that we are bombarded by these types of acute stressful situations over and over again. Muscles are tensing up repeatedly throughout the day, leading to stress pains in the head, neck, shoulders and back. This steady state of strain on the muscles can lead to long-term conditions, from migraine headaches to bulging discs in your back. The constant response by your muscles is also wholly exhausting, leading to a letdown in your immunity to fight illness and infection. While there is no way to alleviate stress from your everyday interactions, you can be mindful of your body’s response throughout the day. Are your shoulders tense right now, simply reading this? Work to balance the stress response with comfort and self-care. Remind yourself to do light stretches, such as shoulder or neck rolls, every hour or so. If you sit at a desk most of the day, get up and take a 5- to 10-minute walk at regular intervals. When you’re home and the dinner table has been cleared, turn to a hot bath instead of the TV; it can do wonders for your body, on many levels. STRESS & THE RESPIRATORY SYSTEM Have you ever had to stand in front of a large audience and speak? Often, no matter how many times we’ve recited the words, we find ourselves woefully out of breath, huffing and puffing as if we were presenting with a treadmill under our feet. This is because stress can constrict breathing. Your sympathetic nervous system sends the message requesting adrenaline and cortisol, and when released, they cause blood vessels to constrict and divert more oxygen to your muscles, readying them to run from or wrestle that hungry tiger at any second. This is not necessarily a problem for healthy individuals, who can rely on self-reminders to pause and take a deep breath. But those who have a history of asthma or lung disease can be particularly compromised when overwhelmed by stress. Hyperventilation can occur, which frequently leads to panic attacks in anxious individuals. This is stress literally attacking your body. STRESS & THE CARDIOVASCULAR SYSTEM Imagine this: You’re stuck in traffic, with endless red lights ahead and a sea of other frustrated drivers on all sides. You’re about to be late for an important meeting, and your absence will be noted by all. Your bag next to you is vibrating regularly as a coworker texts repeated messages asking for your estimated time of arrival. Does it make your blood pressure and heart rate rise simply to imagine this scenario? It’s not just you: It’s biology. Acute stress causes an increase in heart rate and stronger contractions of the heart muscle, with those stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) filling your blood in the process. Your body reacts by dilating the blood vessels in your heart and other large muscle groups, increasing the amount of blood and thereby elevating your blood pressure. Once the traffic clears and you arrive, only a few minutes late, to your appointment, the acute stress disappears and your body returns to normal— until your boss asks if she could speak with you privately for a moment. Cue the rapid heartbeat. If the body undergoes this acute stress only once in a while, it can self-regulate back to normalcy. But if the acute stress becomes a chronic presence in your life, your heart becomes a target for destruction. Chronic stress contributes to the presence of inflammation in the coronary arteries, tying stress to the risk of a heart attack. There is good news for pre-menopausal women—you have higher levels of natural estrogen in your system, which makes your body better at responding to stress and protecting against heart disease. Post-menopausal women, however, have lower levels of estrogen in their bodies, and are at a greater risk for heart attacks caused by stress. As women age, it’s important to bear this in mind: Heart disease is the number one cause of death for women aged 65 and older. Finding ways to limit stress in your body could add years to your life. STRESS & DIABETES When you encounter stress, the part of your brain called the hypothalamus signals the body to produce epinephrine and cortisol, which provide you with immediate energy. But this energy comes at a cost. The release of these hormones triggers the liver to produce glucose, or blood sugar, to stimulate the body through its upcoming stressful encounter. You can’t fight that tiger if you don’t have the energy! If the situation remedies itself and you neither need to fight nor flee, your body reabsorbs the glucose. If you’re a healthy individual who is not predisposed to Type 2 diabetes, your system can manage this effectively. For some, however, the extra blood sugar produced again and again can lead to diabetes. If you’re overweight, or have a family history of diabetes, stress relief should be an active conversation with your physician and loved ones. STRESS & THE EMOTIONAL RESPONSE Stress is tied to many unhealthy habits, such as emotional eating, alcohol consumption, self-medication with various mood enhancers and a reliance on products containing nicotine. It’s often assumed that these bad habits are primarily the consequence of a lack of discipline or self-control, but studies reveal that physiology plays a much bigger role in these types of stress responses. Remember to think of stress as an attack on your body. Not only will your body act to defend itself, it will also attempt to comfort itself, using soothing tactics learned in infancy. Just as a crying baby is given food, a cuddle or a distraction, grown adults will treat themselves with a bowl of ice cream after a long and taxing day. We’ll use a work break to smoke a stress-relieving cigarette. We’ll go out for a “girls’ night” to vent our shared frustrations over cocktails. The unfortunate reality is that none of these coping mechanisms does anything positive over the long-term to combat chronic stress. And while some aspects of acute stress may be temporarily relieved when you take a smoke break or drink a glass of wine, if you depend on these habits to get through stressful situations, you can be doing much more harm than good. Of course, quitting smoking, going on a diet or limiting your alcohol intake often creates an added layer of stress in your life. If possible, before investing time and energy in changing your habits, attempt to confront and reduce some of the sources of stress in your life. That alone may decrease your reliance on less-healthy tactics. Suggestions on how to address your stress are featured in this month’s Bonus Web Content, www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonus. STRESS & THE GASTROINTESTINAL SYSTEM When you’re healthy, you usually make eating choices based on what is uniquely appropriate for your body. These choices are based on the result of body chemistry and personal history with food. But when stressed, your brain and stomach stop communicating clearly, sending confusing messages back and forth. You may feel “too stressed to eat,” and complain of stomach pains and nausea. Or your stomach may feel endlessly hungry, causing you to overeat. The effects of stress on your gastrointestinal system shouldn’t be underestimated. Overeating and alcohol consumption increases the susceptibility of your esophagus to heartburn and acid reflux. Chronic stress puts your body in an exhausted state, which in turn increases the severity of heartburn pain. Chronic stomach pain can develop into ulcers. The intestines are also affected: Nutrient absorption can slow, as can the pace of food through your system. You may find that stress causes you either diarrhea or constipation. It’s always much easier to “say” than it is to “do,” but the best thing you can do for yourself when you’re in a stressful period is protect your body’s ability to defend itself. Make sure you get enough sleep, so that exhaustion does not weaken your ability to respond to stress. Eat several small meals throughout the day. Check in with friends and family over the phone or in person to discuss your stressful situations. Studies have shown that simple, short phone calls with loved ones release dopamine (a hormone and neurotransmitter associated with euphoria), which works to alleviate stress and calm your body. (Interestingly, text messaging does not have the same effect.) ARE YOU LISTENING? Your body can tell you a lot, if you choose to pay attention. Just as you get a vaccine each year to defend against the flu, be mindful about helping your body defend in appropriate ways to stressful situations. Try some of the tips included in the articles that follow to find the positive approaches that work best for you. Stress will always be a part of your life. But by seeking to reduce the frequency and “volume” of those pain points, your body will be better able to manage it for years to come. BONUS WEB CONTENT SOS! Your Body’s Under Stress There are many different approaches that can help you manage when stress threatens to overwhelm your peace of mind. But why wait? Confront the sources of stress—and make changes to reduce their hold on you. Visit www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonus to access. Duffy Perkins is a freelance writer based in Annapolis, Md.
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