Stress & health on the body

Mind. Body. Two separate aspects of self that make up who we are. However, these two entities are not as independent of each other as one might think. Our minds and bodies are constantly feeding off one another. This means that when our minds are under any kind of mental attack, our physical bodies will mirror that distress and anguish in a visible way. For instance, someone who has experienced long-term stress in their lives can most likely see significant changes in their body. Someone who has experienced any short-term amounts of stress can most likely see a temporary decrease in their health over that specific period of time.

In today’s fast paced world, we are no strangers to stress. We know what it is to take on several tasks simultaneously and be held to high standards on a constant, daily basis. We know what it feels like to put our mental and physical well-being on the back-burner so that life can run its course, while we are struggling to keep up.

If we took just a moment to observe the subtle onset of signs of stress that our bodies reveal, we might avert the harm done by unnoticed, disregarded, long-term stress.

Stress has many sources. It can come from the environment that surrounds us on a daily basis, it can come directly from our bodies, or our thoughts and actions. Stress can come from other people or be a direct result of a new situation. There are many causes and it is our job to listen to our bodies when they are attempting to reveal to us any level of distress.

When we become stressed, our bodies release the stress specific hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. These hormones produce physiological changes to help us cope with a perceived threat or danger. This is referred to as a “stress response.”

What is affected when we are stressed?

When we experience stress too often, for too long or the negative feelings associated with the stress overwhelm our ability to cope with it, physical problems will arise. The respiratory system is immediately affected. In a stressful situation we begin to take deeper, longer and more forceful breaths to deliver oxygen rich blood to vital areas of the body. While exercising the lungs may not be a problem for everyone, if you are prone to asthma or shortness of breath you may find this side-effect of stress to be quite difficult to deal with. This usually causes both the body and mind even more stress.

Stress challenges our immune systems. Cortisol suppresses the anti-inflammatory mechanisms, making us more susceptible to infections.

The body’s musculoskeletal system is also affected. Under stress, muscles tense, ready to respond. Repeated muscle tension causes aches and pains. Recurring tension in the neck and jaw muscles may trigger tension headaches and migraines.

Stress affects the cardiovascular system. If acute stress is repeatedly experienced or if low level stress becomes chronic, damage can be caused to the blood vessels, increasing the risk for hypertension, heart attacks and strokes.

Our Skin and Stress

Our skin will respond to stress with physical indications. The hormones released when we are stressed very negatively affect the skin. Below are just some of the ways that the skin can be visibly affected by stress.

Acne: Stress is actually one of the biggest causes of acne. Skin very easily breaks out in times of emotional distress. One of the biggest problems is that acne causes stress, but stress also causes acne, making it very difficult to control. Stress hormones tell your glands to begin secreting more oil. Unfortunately, oily skin is much more prone to acne than skin that is less oily.

Eczema: Eczema is a skin disease that, like acne, has many different triggers with one of them being stress. Patients with eczema often report that additional emotional stress in their lives causes their eczema symptoms to flare up. This could mean that the itchiness of the affected areas increases, there are more areas on the body with eczema or the original areas become larger.

Rosacea: This is a less commonly known skin disorder in which superficial blood vessels enlarge giving the cheeks, nose and under eye areas a flushed appearance. This is most commonly found in adults. Stress is a proven trigger for rosacea flare ups, so managing stress is extremely important for those who experience rosacea. Considering the skin condition is stressful in itself, this can be extremely difficult.

Psoriasis: For those who have psoriasis, stress seems to go hand-in-hand with the disorder. As with the above disorders, just having psoriasis can cause stress and therefore management of emotional stress is very important to managing the symptoms. A very vicious cycle can begin when stress causes the skin condition to flare-up.

Aging: A large amount of emotional stress in a person’s lifetime can speed up the visible signs of aging. (Think about those worry lines between your eyebrows.) On a cellular level stress shortens the length of each DNA strand. As they become shorter, their structural integrity weakens, causing cells to age faster and die much younger.

Coping Mechanisms for Stress Relief

The way that we cope with stress is vitally important to our health and overall well-being. During a stressful time, it may feel as if there is no way out and that there is no reverse to what you are feeling. This is not the case. Even when it is two steps forward and one step back, it is still one step forward.

First it is crucial to identify the source of the negative stress. It can be simple to identify major stressors in life such as a new job, moving homes or going through a major life change. However, it may be much more difficult to determine the source less obvious chronic stressors in your life. It can be all too easy to overlook your own feelings, thought patterns and attitudes that might be contributing to your everyday stress levels. To cope with the stressors in your life, you must first understand and begin making choices to reduce and eliminate what is causing you stress.

When you are feeling stressed, you may lapse into a more sedentary lifestyle. But physical exercise is actually a very effective stress reliever and offers many benefits. Exercise releases the endorphins that make you feel good mentally and physically. If you are not one to head to the gym, even small amounts of physical activity can get the endorphins flowing.

There is nothing more calming than spending quality time with another human being who makes you feel safe and understood. Face-to-face interaction triggers a cascade of hormones that counteracts the body’s natural defensive reactions to stress. Opening up about how you are feeling and finding someone who is capable of listening to those feelings can create a safe place for you. It is during a time like this that you will be able to let some of that stress go and find your inner balance again.

It is important to remember that being under pressure and stress tempts people to adopt negative lifestyle habits such as smoking, drinking or taking drugs. These are ultimately adverse, unfavorable approaches to stress relief. Be careful never to allow yourself to reach a point of no return where you might find yourself grasping for anything to keep your head above water. Identify your stressor, find a support system and keep yourself moving. Self-knowledge is half the battle when it comes to managing your stress. Spend time figuring out what causes stress in your life and what keeps you grounded. Then you will be able to respond appropriately to stressors in your life and return to a balanced, centered life.

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