Understanding and reducing effects of stress on your health
Did you know that our body does not discriminate between sources of stress – it simply responds to the stress So, whether the stress is coming from an actual event – like a car nearly hitting you — or simply a thought – I wonder if I will get hit by a car someday – the body may react in a similar way. Now, in these times when there is so much uncertainty, stress can have a huge impact on our bodies.
What is the “stress response?”
In a nutshell, it is for our own survival. You see, we are geared towards survival and our minds are constantly on a threat alert. Some have called this the “fight or flight” response. I think we all know how it feels – the sudden increase in heart rate, perhaps increased respirations, all meant to prepare the body with oxygen needed to suddenly move into action. Underlying this is a shower of hormones that stimulate the body’s actions but also have impacts on other aspects of our health.
We increase the circulation of adrenaline, known as epinephrine, that activates our heart rate, but it also stimulates the release of glucose and fat from storage sites as a source of fuel. If left unchecked a second response happens that causes the release of cortisol into the blood stream. Cortisol increases the amount of glucose in our bloodstream and can stimulate hunger which can lead to eating more calories than we actually need and thus becoming overweight or obese.
What does all of this mean when we are under stress from COVID-19 worries?
Acute stress can be both helpful and harmful to our body. It can be helpful as it forces us to be vigilant in protecting ourselves and our loved ones. It can be harmful because it causes our blood pressure to rise and our heart rate to increase, and for those who have underlying cardiovascular disease, this may trigger a heart attack or stroke.
However, what is of greater concern is a state of chronic stress, such as many people are experiencing in this time of uncertainty. In this state, the body is continuously activated, resulting in elevated blood pressure and weight gain, which are factors in cardiovascular disease. Additionally, cortisol is known to reduce the production of our immune protective cells known as lymphocytes. In the acute phase, we may actually see an increase of these cells, but as we move to a more chronic state of stress the cortisol release leads us to a decrease of lymphocytes making us potentially more susceptible to ineffectively fighting off infection.
Overcoming the “stress response”
So, our perception of threat is what creates a cascade called a stress response. That response is natural IF there is an actual threat AND if momentary. However, our health, through the possible impact on weight and blood pressure, can be negatively impacted by this stress cascade if not managed well.
Focusing on reducing our stress and improving our health can be accomplished with a handful of simple practices. I call them my 6 Rs.
- Rest: First, get enough sleep! Adequate sleep is extremely helpful in calming down the stress response.
- Relaxation techniques: Deep breathing – whether done through meditation exercises or while you are doing yoga – the key is slow, intentional deep breathing!
- Recreation: Keep active while practicing social distancing – whether that means a walk or reading a book (something you love to do). Taking time for yourself doing something you love to do that involves some form of activity (mental or physical) is helpful!
- Relationships: staying connected is so important. We are meant to be in community. We may be physically isolated but that does not mean we need to lose our connections to others. Telephone or video calls can be a great way to stay connected.
- Routine: yup, in the midst of change why add another one. Stay consistent. Suddenly need to work from home – then get up at the same time, set up an office and work like you normally would.
- Reframing: reassess the perceived stress so it no longer is viewed as a threat. You may need the help of a coach to help you through the practice of first identifying why something is viewed as a threat and then placing that into a context that is helpful.