The word “stress” is so overused that the concept can slide through your brain with barely a notice. A life full of it is our new norm, really, but not much time is spent thinking about what all this stress is actually doing to our bodies. And it’s a lot. As the sun warms my brain this time of year, motivation to “get going” sets in and daily activity increases. In case this applies to you, too, I’m attempting this little refresher course describing “your body on stress”. It’s everywhere so we talk about it a lot… a lot.
Stress is the body’s reaction to any change that requires an adjustment. It reacts to these changes with physical, mental and emotional responses. Whereas stress is a normal part of life, we’re only designed to handle it in small doses. Long-term exposure has consequences. Common events that happen to you all the time put stress on your body, but we don’t all react the same. My neighbor’s barking dog might set my teeth on edge, but he loves that his beloved Spot is talking to him… and isn’t that cute. Ha. There’s parenting headaches, too much work, no work, traffic snarls, shaky finances, rocky relationships, a new health concern and so on. While a little is OK, too much can wear you down and make you sick, both mentally AND physically.
Our bodies are designed to experience stress and react to it, and not all of it is bad. In small does, stress can help you accomplish tasks and prevent you from getting hurt. It is, after all, what gets you to slam on the breaks when the car in front of you stops short or a toddler’s ball bounces into the street. It only becomes negative when you face continuous challenges without relief or relaxation in between.
No part of the body is immune to its effects because constant stress has a cascading effect. It all starts in your brain. When your body goes on high alert because of a real or perceived threat, your fight-or-flight alarm system kicks in, triggering adrenal glands to release a flood of hormones. When this response never shuts off, adrenaline and cortisol levels stay high, increasing heart rate and blood pressure.
Maybe some of these symptoms will sound familiar: low energy, headaches, upset stomach, aches, pains, tense muscles, chest pain, rapid heart beat, insomnia, frequent colds, loss of sexual desire or ability, nervousness, ringing in ear, clenched jaw, grinding teeth, fidgeting. Believe it or not, the idea for my first book, Patchwork of Comforts, came after sitting next to a man in class whose jiggling leg was vibrating the floor under my feet. I think he may have been a pen clicker too.
The trouble is we all get so used to living with some of these problems that it doesn’t dawn on us that emotions are involved. Mentally, constant stress often leads to endless worrying, forgetfulness, disorganization, inability to focus, poor judgement, and pessimism. Every body reacts differently to long-term stress, but consequences can eventually be serious enough to change your life forever — depression, anxiety, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, obesity, eating disorders, sexual dysfunction, or intestinal problems. Prolonged stress is nasty!
Just think about all your body has to go through as it helps you keep up with your present lifestyle… then be kind.