Stress is a natural part of life, and it’s something we all must learn to cope with. Even though stress is to be expected, the problem comes when we aren’t aware of how stressed we are or what it’s doing to our health.
In this guide to understanding stress, we’ll cover the difference between good and bad stress and take a look at the effects of stress on your body and mind. We’ll also offer some stress-management tips to help you mitigate the symptoms of stress.
Understanding Good vs. Bad Stress
Stress is your physiological and psychological response to a change in your environment. When a stressful event or thought occurs, such as a work deadline, a missed appointment or a family emergency, your brain and body produce a stress response. “Good stress” evolved as a survival tool to protect us from physical harm. Even today, without some level of stress, we wouldn’t be as productive. But good stress is meant to be acute, subsiding after the stressor has passed.
“Bad stress” is when there’s no serious impending threat, but your body continues to produce a stress response anyway, never really shutting off. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), “bad stress” is also known as chronic stress, and its prolonged physiological and psychological effects can impact our mental and physical well-being.
Even though most of us don’t face physical threats often, why then do we experience chronic stress? Some researchers theorize that stress is contagious. Since our modern world has become increasingly more interconnected, it’s much easier to “catch” stress from others. For example, consider how watching the news might affect you. Even though nothing is threatening you physically, just hearing about economic challenges might cause you to worry about your own livelihood and your family’s well-being.
When we’re exposed to these types of indirect threats daily, it’s important to counter them with stress-reducing practices. However, most people find themselves too busy to make time for relaxation, meaning our stress response stays active even when it doesn’t need to.
How Stress Affects Your Body
How stress affects your body has to do with the autonomic nervous system. When your mind perceives a physical threat, your brain releases a dump of hormones that floods your body. These hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) are what activate the “fight-or-flight” part of your nervous system, raising your heart rate, elevating your blood pressure and increasing your blood sugar levels. Your body also automatically shuts down other non-essential functions that you won’t need to make immediate use of.
According to the APA, there are six main areas of the body that are impacted by the nervous system’s stress response.
Stress causes your muscles to contract, restricting blood flow. With chronic stress, your musculoskeletal system is in a more permanent state of constriction. Over time, constant muscle tension can cause injury and chronic pain, including back and neck pain, and may even lead to secondary disorders like migraines.
Stress causes changes in your breathing patterns, including taking more frequent and shallower breaths. Restricted breathing limits the amount of oxygen circulating through your body and brain, which can cause fatigue and sluggishness. Additionally, people with breathing issues like asthma or COPD can find that chronic stress exacerbates their symptoms.
During the stress response, your blood vessels dilate to increase your blood pressure. Stress hormones are released, which raises your heart rate. If the stress response doesn’t subside, your cardiovascular can continue to work in overdrive, putting you at risk of hypertension, heart attack and stroke.
The endocrine system is responsible for producing hormones that regulate several functions like sleep, reproduction, mood and metabolism as well as your immune system. Over time, excessive stress can impair the communication between your endocrine system and your brain, potentially putting you at risk of chronic immune or metabolic disorders as well as depression.
Researchers say there is a brain-gut axis, which directly connects neurons in the gut with neurons in the brain. This is why, during a stressful or anxious situation, you develop “butterflies.” With prolonged stress, the gastrointestinal system’s organs, including the stomach, bowels and esophagus, will all be affected. Persistent bloating, cramping, gas, nausea as well as heartburn and acid reflux may all be attributed to a chronic state of stress.
Stress can affect both male and female reproductive systems, which the body shuts down when the stress response is activated. Chronic stress can impair testosterone production in men, menstruation in women and can decrease sexual arousal in both sexes. High-stress levels can also affect a woman’s ability to conceive and cause complications during pregnancy.
What Is Stress-Management?
It’s important to understand that to eradicate stress entirely is impossible and not useful. Instead, our approach should be to manage the inevitable stress in our lives so that we can overcome the challenge it presents. Stress management is all about interventions that will make you happier and healthier despite your stress.
It’s important to keep in mind that some people have much more stressful lives than others. Stress is also a highly personal and subjective experience. What’s stressful to one person may not be stressful to another. Though different stressors affect people differently, the response is virtually the same in all of us. Because of that, there are some tried and true ways for all of us to counter the effects of stress.
Leading health experts agree that the following stress-management tips are vital to living a happier, healthier and longer life:
1. Put Your Health First
One of the reasons many of us feel overwhelmed by stress is because we tend to neglect our personal health. It’s easy to start placing a higher priority on other aspects of life like work, family or community involvement. But the old cliché is true — you need to put your own oxygen mask on first before you can help anyone else.
Putting your health first means that nothing comes before the basics like proper diet, regular exercise and enough sleep. These are the non-negotiable fundamentals of longevity and well-being, and making these items your priority will truly pay off.
2. Get Organized
Often times, stress comes from feeling like you’re underprepared for your upcoming responsibilities. Scattered thoughts and too much on your plate make for a stressful combination. The American Heart Association gives this example: notice how whenever you feel stressed about the day or week ahead, making a list helps you feel much better equipped to tackle the upcoming tasks.
Getting organized is an act of self-care that will keep you mentally and emotionally healthy. By implementing basic tools and routines, you’ll feel much more in control over your stress.
3. Schedule Relaxation Time
As we saw earlier, chronic stress can keep your muscles in a permanently tensed state, leading to musculoskeletal symptoms like back and neck pain. Because relaxation requires conscious attention, it’s important to make time for it daily.
Like stress, relaxation may look different for each person. For some people, it might mean taking a long walk in nature or reading a book. For others, relaxation techniques like progressive muscle relaxation, breathing exercises or meditation might be more effective. Whatever it is that you consider relaxing, be sure to make time for it every day to counter the effects of stress on your body.
4. Ask for Help
If you’re finding it difficult to manage your day-to-day stress, then it might be time to ask for help. Remember that you’re not alone. Everyone goes through stressful periods, and many people find relief once they’ve received help.
Whether you get support from your spouse, friends or co-workers or you seek professional help from a counselor, reaching out is not a weakness. By getting help, you’ll have more peace of mind, and you’ll discover even more healthy ways to manage stress.
Manage Your Stress With Wellness Solutions From Relax The Back
Learning how to manage stress is critical to leading a longer, healthier life. As our lives become busier, we need solutions that promote relaxation and alleviate chronic pain. Wellness products from Relax The Back reduce the effects of stress on the body by encouraging a neutral spine, better blood flow and increased energy.