Stress affects us physically, mentally and emotionally. It can cause us to feel fatigued, become easily agitated, and experience tension or pain in our bodies. We all experience stress on various levels. From big life changing stressors (e.g., career change, illness, injury, loss), to day-to-day stressors (e.g., running from one activity or meeting to the next, feeling overwhelmed, sitting in traffic, balancing family and work responsibilities). Even worrying causes stress on our bodies.
When we experience stress day after day, big or small, it negatively affects our health. According to the American Institute of Stress, 90% of all health problems are related to stress. Negative emotions we experience during times of stress (e.g., anger, frustration, anxiety, worry) are depleting. However experiencing positive emotions (e.g., happiness, appreciation, contentment, joy) is regenerative and facilitates DHEA (Dehydroepiandrosterone) hormone production. DHEA is a steroid hormone and a precursor to sex hormones estrogen and testosterone. Although small amounts are produced in our reproductive organs, the primary source is provided by our adrenal glands. Our adrenals sit just above our kidneys.
Cortisol is an essential hormone regulating not only our stress response, but it also helps regulate blood pressure, blood sugar, metabolism, as well as controls our sleep-wake cycle. In times of need, cortisol helps us mentally and physically. But consistent, frequent demands for cortisol can be problematic. Our bodies don’t distinguish between life threatening stressors and everyday smaller stressors. Higher levels of DHEA help us to better cope with stress. We reach our peak levels of DHEA around age 20. Excess levels of cortisol in relation to DHEA make us more vulnerable to the effects of stress. Over time, this can contribute to elevated blood pressure, reduced immune function, thyroid suppression, difficulty healing from injury or illness. Conditions can become exacerbated when cortisol is chronically elevated, resulting in chronic fatigue, depression, difficulty losing weight and accelerated aging.
While we can’t avoid stress, we can be intentional about reducing the negative consequences of stress. Below are a few tips for supporting our bodies for both coping with stressors and being more resilient to stress.
- Practice an attitude of gratitude and focus on experiencing more regenerative emotions throughout the day.
- Exercise. Sometimes a cardio workout helps us to release tension, while other times our bodies may benefit more from stretching, yoga, or a walk with a friend. Exercising has its benefits but can also raise cortisol levels. It’s important to listen to your body and recognize when skipping a workout may be more beneficial. Now that it’s spring I am starting to run more (I’ve become a fair weather runner, only running from the spring months through the Turkey Trot). But I always plan my runs so that after I finish I have .25-.5 mile of walking. This give me time to slow my breathing, take in the sights and sounds of nature. This helps to bring my cortisol level back down, and calm my nervous system before heading on to my next activity.
- Eat nutrient dense foods. Consuming processed and/or sugary foods adds more stress to our bodies and depletes nutrients, compounding the effects of stress.
- Establish a nightly routine to promote a good night sleep (e.g., avoid screens 1-2 hours before bed, stop eating 3 hours before, enjoy reading, meditating, praying or journaling).
- Build in time buffers. Leave 10 minutes early, and add extra time between obligations to reduce the stress associated with racing from one thing to the next.
- Consider supplementation. B vitamins, adaptogenic herbs and probiotics can all support our stress response.
A client shared a change she made to reduce stress. She stopped speeding. Not only did she stop feeling like she was always racing, but she also avoided being on the lookout because she feared getting a speeding ticket. Whether you are looking to reduce the impact of stress on your health or focusing on other goals, small changes make a difference.