Stress is a normal part of life that usually comes from everyday experiences and may elicit a bodily response that is physical, mental or emotional. Your body is equipped with an internal mechanism to deal with stress. When you are faced with a stressful situation, your body naturally produces stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline which puts your body in a fight of flight mode. Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts your energy levels while cortisol increases blood sugar (glucose) levels, alters your immune system’s responses and suppresses the digestive system, reproductive system, and growth processes.
What stress does to your body
Stress may be positive as it puts you on alert and allows you to address a challenge or obstacle efficiently with your body’s fight or flight system. When you are unable to overcome your stress episode, stress hormones may affect proper function of the heart, blood vessels, liver, lungs, air passageways, stomach and intestines. Stress can lead to hypertension, heart attack or stroke. Furthermore, your liver reacts to stress by producing more blood sugar which provides energy for the fight of flight mode. This may lead to diabetes in those who suffer from obesity and others who are at risk. Rapid breathing from stress may trigger asthma in people with lung problems and panic attacks among those prone to anxiety disorders. When you are stressed, you may tend to eat more than your regular diet. This may lead to heartburn, acid reflux, ulcers, stomach pain, indigestion, slow absorption of nutrients, constipation and diarrhea.
How to deal with chronic stress
Once the acute stress episode has passed, the body is expected to return to its normal state. Unfortunately, some stressors may continue to affect you and may develop into chronic stress. In chronic stress, stress hormones remain in your blood stream causing various health problems.
While stress may be inevitable, how you handle stress may keep you from developing stress-related illnesses. A combination of diet, exercise, and relaxation techniques can change how your body reacts to stress.
Carbohydrates trigger the release of serotonin, a brain chemical that soothes and relaxes you. Fight stress by eating a meal with adequate amounts of complex carbohydrates from whole grains, and green, yellow and orange vegetables. The vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals found in vegetables also boost your immune system to increase your body’s resistance against stress-related disease. Avoid stimulants like coffee, caffeinated drinks, and alcohol which may aggravate feelings of stress. Stop smoking and avoid sugary, salty and high fat foods.
Physical activity produces endorphins, your brain’s feel-good chemicals that contribute to sensations of happiness and wellness. Exercise also keeps your mind off the stressful episode as you focus on your routine or game of sports. Walking, running, jogging, climbing stairs, swimming and dancing are simple activities that provide stress relief.
Relaxation techniques are easy, inexpensive and effective ways of reducing stress and can be performed at any time and anywhere. Autogenic relaxation is a simple technique using visual imagery and body awareness while progressive muscle relaxation involves tensing and relaxing various muscle groups alternately from your toes all the way to your neck and head. Visualisation is another technique where you use mental images of a peaceful and calm place to achieve relaxation. You may also counter the effects of stress in your body with other relaxation techniques such as yoga, Tai Chi, listening to music, meditation and Swedish massage.