When our bodies begin to feel the effects of stress, our heart starts racing, we breathe a little faster, our muscles tense up and we get ready to react. You might have heard this referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ response.
Our body naturally goes through this process as a way of preparing us for dealing with a situation where we might be in danger.
If you think back to our primitive ancestors, this danger would’ve probably involved being chased by a predator! But after the danger is over, our body automatically returns to its natural, peaceful state.
Stress in today’s world
What’s happening in today’s society, however, is that while our stress isn’t as life-threatening as being chased by a sabre toothed tiger, it seems like it’s never ending, which means our stress levels are elevated day after day without reprieve. And when that happens, our overall health is seriously affected.
What’s happening on the inside
While someone may look quite okay and put together on the outside, what’s usually happening on the inside paints a completely different picture:
Stress can trigger tension that causes intense headaches, as well as shoulder, back and stomach pain.
Depression and anxiety
With so much pressure on our central nervous system, stress wears us down emotionally, and can lead to mental health issues like depression and/or anxiety.
Poor digestive health
Stress increases the release of stomach acid, which can cause heartburn. It can also disrupt the balance of good–bad gut flora that can cause serious digestive problems.
Difficulty sleeping or insomnia
With so much adrenaline and cortisol (the stress hormones) running through the body, it can be difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. This in turn affects our ability to function the next day.
Shortness of breath
When we’re stressed or anxious, our breathing is short and shallow. We find it hard to take deep breaths, which means we aren’t getting enough oxygen to fuel our bodies.
Weakened immune system
Being under long-term stress wears down our immune system, leaving us open to illness.
High blood pressure
Stress hormones tighten the blood vessels, which can lead to high blood pressure. Over time, this can damage the arteries, and (along with an increased heart rate) can lead to a heart attack.
Sexual or reproductive health problems
Stress interferes with the reproductive system in both men and women, so it can cause fertility problems. It can also take a toll on your libido, and affect a woman’s period, or cause erectile dysfunction in men.
How can we un-stress?
Knowing how relentlessly stressful our modern lifestyle is and how stress affects the entire body, the question is, what can we do to cope?
In the short term: Breathe!
When our blood is pumping and our heart is racing, we need to slow everything right down. A quick way to do this is by bringing awareness to our breathing. You’ll notice it is fast, short and shallow. Imagine there’s a feather at the tip of your nose and you don’t want it to fly away. Take slow, gentle and mindful breaths, noticing the air as it goes in and out of your nostrils. Doing this even for just a few minutes will help you slow down, and bring your body and mind back to balance.
In the long term: Change what you can
Depending on your situation and the reason for your elevated stress levels, sometimes changing our situation can be out of our control. But there is always a chance to make different decisions. Think about ways you can alleviate some of the stress in your life.
- Could you be carving out more time for yourself, perhaps?
- Instead of taking on more than you can handle, could you be saying ‘no’ to some non-essential activities?
- Do you need to walk away from any toxic situations?
- Would it help to speak to a counsellor about some emotional baggage that is weighing you down?
Don’t be afraid to reach out for help if you need it. Do your best to look after your health, because it really is the most important thing of all.