Stress may be a natural part of the human condition, but our busy, overstimulated, lives mean that it’s a little too normal for own good.
While a small amount of stress can act as a motivator, too much can cause a whole host of mental and physical problems including wreaking havoc on our immune system. So, how do we cope when we’re living in a high stress world where our immune systems need to be in tip top shape? By recognizing how stress impacts our bodies and learning how to counteract its impact.
What Is Stress?
From the very first evolved beings, stress has been a fact of life. In fact, at one point, stress could be a lifesaver. At one point, stress gave us the ability to respond to threats both psychologically and physically.
When we experience extreme stress, our bodies go into a state called 'fight or flight'. This is when our brains take over and urge our bodies to either run away from a perceived threat, or gear up for combat. The brain releases hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol that have a range of effects on the body - we become more alert, our pulse quickens, our breathing accelerates and more oxygen is delivered to the heart and our large muscles. Our immune systems also go into overdrive in an effort to protect us from infections sustained through cuts and other bodily damage.
How The Body Reacts To Stress
In moments of extreme stress you may notice the following changes to your body:
- Dilated pupils
- Dry mouth
- Accelerated breathing and heart rate
- Tensed muscles
- Sweating on the back of your neck and palms
These may have been useful reactions back in the day when facing down (or escaping from) a predator, but in the modern world, this type of stress response can often be misplaced (we can’t fight the news coming at us from our screens or run away from our jobs). And when the body's stress response continues over a longer period of time, it can inhibit your immune system and have serious health effects.
Effects Of Chronic Stress On The Body
A long term stress response within the body is bad news for your immune system and a weakened immune system in a world facing a pandemic is even worse. Although stress itself is perfectly normal, it becomes a problem when it's ongoing - what's often referred to as 'chronic stress'. And lots of us are probably facing chronic stress right now. A lot of situations can trigger chronic stress - that pandemic we mentioned, politics, a breakup, financial difficulties, troubles at work or the death of a loved one.
When chronic stress goes on for too long, it can start to affect your central nervous system and you may experience symptoms like:
- Tension headaches
- A low mood or irritability
- Heartburn or other indigestion
- A lower immune system
- High blood sugar
- High blood pressure
- Stomach aches or diarrhea
- Fertility issues
- A low sex drive or erectile dysfunction
- An irregular menstrual cycle
- Tense or sore muscles
And, a weakened immune system.
Cortisol, when it’s released in short spurts, can limit inflammation and infection during that fight response. But cortisol released over long periods of time can actually increase inflammation and inflammation leads to many of the symptoms mentioned above AND leads to a very tired immune system.
So, don’t overwork your immune system. Stress management begins with understanding your stressors, the factors which trigger your response. Spend time getting to know the events or conditions that stress you out and work to avoid them.
Easier said than done, right? We can’t avoid stress completely but we can:
- Eat Healthy Meals - a properly balanced diet plays a big role in maintaining optimum health, as processed foods or snacks that are high in sugar and salt put additional stress on our bodies.
- Prioritize Sleep - good quality sleep is one of the foundations of good health, but it can feel hard to achieve when you feel stressed. Increase your ability to sleep by removing devices from your bedroom, removing all light sources, maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, and avoiding devices for at least an hour before bed.
- Try some mindfulness and meditation - very simple relaxation and breathing techniques can help you focus your attention on breathing and take it off the things stressing you out, if only for a few moments. Meditation has even been shown to boost your immune system.
- Find A Hobby - doing something we love - whether it's playing music, painting or simply escaping into a good book can be incredibly relaxing by helping us to achieve a 'flow state' in which we become absorbed in a task.
- Exercise - scientists agree that exercise is one of the best ways to get stress under control. There's a form of exercise to suit everyone out there, whether it's something social, like playing tennis with a friend or a team sport like netball or something solitary like running. If you want something gentler, try a walk out in a beautiful natural setting, or start learning yoga at home.
Don’t let the stress of a new exercise program put extra strain on your body. When starting any new exercise program, you can make sure that you stay safe and keep your spine in alignment by using insoles in your shoes.
It’s more important than ever to keep your immune system working for you so don’t let stress get the best of you. Take a deep breath, go for a walk, or try talking to someone if things are too overwhelming. You’ve got this!