Stress is something that we are all aware of daily. Stress can cause bodily or mental tension. But did you know that stress can be both positive and negative? It is your perception of this stress that matters most.
General adaptation syndrome is how your body responds to stress. There are three stages to stress: the alarm stage, the resistance stage and the exhaustion stage.
- The alarm stage is when the central nervous system is awakened, causing your body’s defenses to assemble. This SOS stage results in a fight-or-flight response.
- The resistance stage is when your body begins to repair itself and normalize heart rate, blood pressure, etc. After the initial shock of a stressful event, your body enters this recovery phase but remains on high alert for a while.
- The exhaustion stage is when activation in the first two stages continues over time, causing a breakdown in the balance within your body. This is when certain diseases, such as diabetes or heart disease, may begin.
How Does Stress Impact Your Physical Health?
When you experience stress, several things occur impacting your cardiovascular, muscular and nervous systems:
- Your brain releases a hormone that triggers your body’s fight-or-flight response, producing adrenaline and secreting cortisol.
- Cortisol is a steroid, which can weaken your immune system and the wound-healing process, increase bone loss, and decrease energy levels.
- Adrenaline increases your heart rate, breathing and blood pressure. It also causes fat tissue to break down and increases lactic acid in your muscles. With stimulation and increased adrenaline, your liver releases sugar into the bloodstream for energy.
- The stimulation of your central nervous system and sympathetic nervous system causes salt retention, the elevation of sugar in your bloodstream, increased risk of blood clots, and can even lead to damage to your heart and kidneys.
Marathon Health Behavioral Health Counselor Damir Alisa says people might not even realize when stress is impacting their nervous system. “If you’re sitting down and suddenly start tapping your foot rapidly but have no idea that you’re doing it, that’s a sign that your nervous system is being constricted,” Alisa explains.
With all this stress on the body, your heart has to work a lot harder, which can cause it to become less effective and less efficient. Less blood will travel to your vital organs, which can limit their ability to function properly. Prolonged stress can also increase your risk of disease and contribute to pre-existing conditions while also weakening your immune system.
Additionally, it can make it difficult to focus and even cause short-term memory loss because stress impacts several parts of the brain associated with memory. For example, you may have trouble remembering what you were doing just a few moments ago, which can make it difficult to focus on completing tasks or your work. It can also cause digestive issues and impact your sleep patterns by either making it difficult for you to fall asleep or cause you to feel fatigued and sleep more than you normally do.
What Types of Changes and Techniques Can Lower Your Stress Level?
It may seem simple but making sure that you are eating healthy, getting enough sleep and exercising can have a positive impact on your stress level. You should also consider making potential lifestyle changes like finding a new job if it’s causing you to become overly stressed.
As far as techniques to try, Alisa says that when his patients start feeling anxious and overwhelmed by stress, he suggests reframing their focus. “Anxiety can impact the body and mind in many ways. One of the impacts it has on the brain is by causing the vision to narrow. When the brain senses danger it activates the central vision to help find an escape route. Engaging the peripheral view sends a signal to the brain, letting it know that there is no actual danger present. There are a few techniques that I use to engage in peripheral view, which then sends a trigger to the brain telling it that it’s not experiencing anxiety and it’s okay to regulate itself again.”
Learning how to reframe your focus is important because it changes your perception of the stress you encounter so you can better manage it. Deep breathing, meditation, mindfulness, yoga, exercise, and even venting to a trusted friend can all help reduce the negative impacts stress can have on your body.
“The two most beneficial ways counseling can help manage stress is by providing an outlet and education,” Alisa says. “First off, counseling can fill the void when people don’t have outlets to share how they are feeling because they may be afraid of burdening someone close to them or they don’t have a support system in their life.
“The second benefit is getting educated on how stress impacts the body and then learning coping mechanisms to manage triggers. In counseling, we focus on practicing awareness so you understand what may be causing you anxiety or stressors. And then once you practice awareness, you learn how to put a stop to them sooner. For example, interjecting coping strategies, whether it’s breathing exercises or cognitive mental tricks, can activate the decision-making part of your brain so it can return to its normal state.”
If these methods don’t work or you’re looking for a little more support, you can also consider contacting a practitioner about medications that can help with stress management.
This article was updated on May 3, 2022.