Stress impacts our bodies and health in many ways and not in exactly the same way for each person in each situation. For some people stress can result in weight gain and others it causes weight loss. Let’s look at what is going on inside the body when we experience stress.
Stress can cause many symptoms that can be red flags for us signaling that our body is responding to an abundance of stress. Some of those symptoms can include: headaches, indigestion, aches and pains, tense muscles, mood changes, fatigue, sleep difficulties, short term memory struggles, increased heart rate or decreased sex drive. Some of the external ways we respond to stress can aggravate the internal disturbances that are caused by it as well. We may skip meals, stay up late, miss sleep or exercise in excess or not at all.
Our body goes in to a “Fight or Flight’ mode when we experience stress. This goes back to a basic part of us that existed in the days when our stresses were simply lions, storms or finding food. Our body doesn’t see a difference between the stress of being late to a meeting and the stress of a tiger over the next hill. When the fight or flight mode is activated, we call that an acute stress response. This tells our body to respond to a threat and that starts a chain reaction of events in the body. First our body releases hormones like adrenalin and cortisol so that we can activate our muscles in case we need to run. This is not helpful for us when we are sitting in a meeting. Cortisol suppresses functions that are deemed “nonessential” during a time of crisis such at digestion, immune function or reproductive system responses. Having your digestion slowed way down can cause unwanted effects later down the road like pain, heartburn, diarrhea or constipation. Chronic stress over time can potentially lead to the development of digestive conditions such as ulcers or irritable bowel syndrome. When our digestion is hindered, we also do not absorb the nutrients in our food effectively which can result in inflammation and effect metabolism.
Stress can affect your sleep as well. You may find that you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep and upon waking you do not feel rested or re-energized. Sleep is so important for our health and when we are not getting enough or the quality of our sleep is diminished, we will see dramatic negative effects on our health and performance.
Stress can also impact our eating habits by causing us to eat too much, too little or poor-quality food. Metabolism is greatly impacted by suppression of our digestion, immune system disfunction, how much or little food we take in, our ability to get appropriate exercise and the quality of our sleep. Any one of these problems is a large set back to our overall health and well-being. So how do we minimize not only the stress that we experience in our lives but also the internal effects that it is having on our body?
If we view our stresses and the things, we can do to minimize them and their effects as if they are on a scale, we can try to cut back on the things that are going to fall into the stress side of the scale and add as many things into the minimizing side of the scale as possible. It is about balance and these are ever changing variables so there is not a one size fits all answer to this problem. Making certain things like sleep, exercise, nutrition, healthy boundaries and time management priorities in our lives is the first place to start. Trying to implement too many changes at once will just add stress to our lives so it is important to be kind to ourselves and pick out a couple things at a time that will have the most positive impact in the overall picture.
There are many ways to try to improve your sleep. Making sure to turn off the TV and not look at your phone for an hour before your bedtime helps to keep your natural circadian rhythm in balance. Having a set bedtime and wake time also helps your body to get into a natural sleep cycle. If you are someone who’s mind wakes you up racing with thoughts it can help to keep a notebook by the bed to empty those thoughts into when you get them and allow your mind to rest again. Avoiding caffeine or eating too late in the day can also help your body to fall asleep and rest easier.
Finding exercise that you enjoy and will do regularly is a great way to reduce stress. Exercise produces endorphins that help you feel good and be positive. Exercise also strengthens many systems in your body as well as your body as a whole and is an important piece in the reduction of stress.
Making sure that you are eating a diet that is full of the nutrients your body needs to thrive and minimizes the ingredients that are potentially harmful is also an important piece to the stress puzzle. We need to eat enough so that our body is not feeling deprived as well. Depriving our bodies of what we need only increases that fight or flight response and can cause us to make more poor decisions for our bodies.
We need to be able to also minimize the amount of stress that we are allowing to affect our bodies in the first place. Sometimes we need to be honest about the fact that we have trauma in our lives that we have not been able to process and we may need the help of a professional counselor or therapist to help us process and eliminate the stress that is causing in our lives.
Learning to say “no” and establishing appropriate boundaries in our lives can also be a huge asset in limiting the amount of stress we are dealing with. It can be difficult to say no when you are a people pleasing personality or want to help everyone but keeping that at a maintainable level in your life is paramount to your own health and wellness. We cannot adequately help others when we are not taking care of ourselves.
These are just some ideas about how to handle the stresses we encounter but if we can prioritize eliminating the stresses that we can control and then utilizing the techniques we have to best enable our bodies to handle the stresses that we cannot eliminate we should be able to balance out the stress scales in our lives and minimize the negative effects that it has on our metabolism as a whole. Keeping our metabolism burning strong will help us to create the strong and healthy bodies we want.