The word “stress” has been so ubiquitous during these pandemic times that it almost seems to have lost its meaning. However, the phenomenon of stress, as it relates to our metabolic processes, serves a critical role in your body’s ability to function and maintain an equilibrium. Stress in moderate doses drives us to learn, perform, adapt, and evolve. But too much stress, or too little stress, can wreak havoc on our systems.
At Hudson Medical + Wellness, we are constantly striving to help our patients find balance in their lives. Helping you fine-tune your lifestyle to find a tolerable amount of stress is just one aspect of this mission. Read on to learn more about stress and its impact on wellness and disease.
Metabolically speaking, a stressor is an input that kick starts a set of biological processes within the body, many of which are related to activation of the sympathetic nervous system (your “fight or flight” response).
In a historic context, external stress or stressor could come from encountering a predator in the wild or fending off a tribal enemy. Our brains and bodies are primed to respond reflexively to these types of stresses, flooding our bloodstreams with a surge of hormones to drive up our heart rate and blood pressure, dilate our pupils, increase our respiratory reserve, and make glucose available to our skeletal muscle cells so that we can defend ourselves or sprint away.
When we experience a stressful event, certain key hormones—like adrenaline and cortisol—are our allies. They allow us to respond immediately without having to waste time deliberating over our next move. However, in today’s modern life, our primary stressors are no longer lions and tigers, and our innate stress response is not always so beneficial.
In the modern world, a typical stress response might be triggered by getting stuck in traffic, running late to a Zoom meeting, or receiving a curt text. Even though none of these inputs pose an immediate threat to your life, your body still responds in the same way as it would to an existential threat—by driving up your vital signs and flooding you with a surge of hormones.
Mobilizing your blood pressure, heart rate, and lung capacity is typically not the most effective way of coping when you need to draft a diplomatic reply to an offensive email. Because our mandated responses to our modern-day stressors typically do not effectively release our built-up tension, we may struggle to snap out of our activated states. In fact, throughout a particularly stressful week, your body may never receive a clear signal to return to its normal functioning, and you may remain hyperactivated. Unfortunately, research shows that spending too much time in a wound-up, galvanized state—in which your stress hormone levels are constantly elevated—can leave you vulnerable to the development of chronic medical conditions such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
To muddy the picture further, stress is not universally bad. One of the most obvious examples of positive stress is one that we seek out intentionally: exercise. When you exercise, you temporarily boost your blood pressure and cortisol, creating transient physical stress that improves many body systems. Exercise can increase the blood flow to your brain and cause you to release endorphins, which can improve your mood. Research shows that regular exercise can also reduce your risk of illnesses such as cardiovascular disease.
It can be confusing to sort out why stress in the form of exercise can be so beneficial, while non-exercise induced, modern-day stress can be so toxic. The key to differentiating between the two is that one is short-lived, and the other is smoldering.
When your lifestyle does not permit you to escape from chronic stress, you can set yourself up for tangible health consequences. Chronic stress, which runs parallel with chronic cortisol elevation, can increase the underlying levels of inflammation throughout your body. Research has shown that, in humans, chronic stress-induced inflammation has been associated with many health conditions, including:
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Migraine headaches
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Chronic pelvis pain
- Chronic low back pain and sciatica
- GERD and peptic ulcer disease
- Ulcerative colitis
Chronic stress has also been associated with mood disorders and suppression of the immune system. If you are predisposed to a certain medical condition, whether due to environmental factors or your family history, chronic stress may fan the flame and exacerbate your condition or cause it to manifest at a younger age.
Experiencing stress from time to time is inevitable. Knowing what we know about stress and its effects on our health, it is natural to wonder how we can effectively address our stress levels and mitigate the health effects of chronic stress.
According to the American Heart Association, the following stress reduction methods can be helpful, particularly when it comes to decreasing the impact of stress on your blood pressure levels:
- Change your time expectations (don’t try to overschedule yourself)
- Learn to say “no” and avoid overpromising
- Make a plan to solve the problems that you can control
- Be aware of your stress triggers
- Focus on regular relaxation, with 15 to 20 minutes of daily meditation time
- Seek to build supportive and nurturing relationships
- Be physically active so that you can have an outlet for tension
- Limit activities that can further increase inflammation, such as overeating, drinking alcohol, and smoking
- Practice gratitude
Research shows that even more subtle ways of stress reduction, such as removing your exposure to “noise pollution” by wearing noise-canceling headphones, can go a long way in reducing your stress burden and limiting your vulnerability to developing chronic disease.
At Hudson Medical + Wellness, we have our finger on the pulse of stress-busting practices. One of the core tenants of our functional wellness program is helping our clients find personalized ways to decrease their daily stress and increase their ability to live a disease-free life. We offer services that can help reduce stress from many angles, such as helping our clients with nutrition, pain management, and sleep. We also offer stress reduction therapies such as massage therapy and acupuncture.
To learn more about how our functional wellness program can help you manage the stress in your life, schedule a consultation today with one of our Wellness providers.
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