We all know that chronic stress wreaks physical and emotional havoc on our bodies. When we encounter stressors our bodies respond with a series of reactions that help us stand up and fight or turn around and run. However, most of the stress we come under today doesn’t quite require us to run or fight, it usually causes us to ruminate about the problem over and over and over again. Our brains cannot tell the difference from a real or perceived threat (one that we have conjured up in our minds) and therefore, it does what it is supposed to do, every time a threat is perceived.
When our brain senses that we are in danger it immediately stimulates a trip that activates an automatic response in our bodies. This activation (which occurs in the sympathetic nervous system) signals our bodies to release a cascade of hormones designed to help us fight or run. Our heart begins to race and our breathing rate increases to supply us with blood and oxygen. Our blood pressure increases and blood is diverted from certain areas of the body to supply increased blood to our muscles and extremities (legs and arms). Our eyesight becomes sharper. We become an adrenaline flowing machine ready to conquer the enemy or run like crazy. Awesome, right?
Well, not if there is no eminent danger except for “what if” scenarios playing out in our mind, over and over again (called rumination). We ponder on the constant frustration of working a job we do not like, never-ending traffic jams, or we think of every single that that could go wrong with a particular issue and search the internet to make sure we didn’t forget anything! These types of events are not harmful in themselves, but our perception of them, our body’s automatic responses and our associated behaviors can be quite dangerous to our bodies over a long period of time. When we feel stressed we often engage in go to behaviors to calm our stressful minds like overeating, over drinking, promiscuity, over spending or substance abuse. Our negative go to behaviors coupled with our constant “flight or fight” mode does very little to increase longevity or happiness.
Prolonged or chronic stress engages your body in a battle that causes damage to the bodies systems by:
- Releasing cortisol, which can affect our ability to learn new information
- Increasing the amount of glucose in our bodies, which can result in diabetes
- Slowing down digestion, which can create an upset in our digestive system, which can result in heartburn or acid reflux
- Speeding up the heart rate, which can cause cardiovascular problems as our heart tries to stay up with the demand for more blood
- Tightening muscles, which can result in chronic back, shoulder and neck problems, as the muscles are constantly tense preparing to fight off danger
You can win the battle against stress by:
- Bring on the humor– laughing releases hormones that help your body to relax naturally and increases the flow of oxygen in your body
- Get physical-engaging in exercise that makes you sweat allows your body to get rid of extra energy and releases hormones that improve your mood
- Get a pet– pets love you no matter what and cozying up to one or viewing one through a fish bowl helps you to relax
- Work it-gardening relieves stress by giving your brain a break and by helping you to be present in the moment
- Frolic in nature-walking among the trees or working in your garden can increase the level of serotonin in your brain (hormone that helps to balance you and helps you to feel good)
- Turn up the volume– listening to your favorite music can reduce feelings of anxiety and increase the amount of antibodies in your body that help to fight of disease
Mental Health and Wellness Advocate
Benita L. Thornhill, MA, LPCA is the spouse of a former Naval Surface Warfare Officer. She is the owner of Coastal Carolina Wellness Connection in Jacksonville, NC. She works with active duty military, veterans and their families. If you have any questions or need guidance, please contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org