Stress is a primal response to danger. When we were still swinging from trees and running through the jungle, hesitation meant death. If a ravenous beast came roaring out of the nearest bush, you survived by either fighting or fleeing as quickly as possible. Today, this “fight or flight” response is what we call “stress.”
Most of us now live in a world where our bushes are free of beasts. We’ve traded our caves for condominiums and our pointy sticks for briefcases, but despite this domestication, we’ve yet to conquer stress the way we conquered the jungle. Our fight or flight response can be triggered by negativity in the workplace, money troubles, relationships, family squabbles, traffic jams, and even global politics.
Sometimes, stress can actually be helpful. When you’re driving a car and someone accidentally steps into the road, what happens? Hopefully, you swerve. That automatic reflex is a result of stress. It can save your life and the life of the pedestrian in your path.
Stress can also be a great motivator. When something makes you feel bad, stress pushes you to change your behavior or the world.
Incidental and temporary stress happens all the time, and learning to deal with that stress is part of being a mature adult. It’s when stress becomes chronic that your health suffers in a major way.
How Stress Affects Different Parts of Your Body
Long-term stress can damage parts of your body in significant ways. Chronic stress to the muscles may result in migraines and tension headaches. For asthmatics, stress can trigger rapid breathing, asthma, or even panic attacks.
Acute stress, which occurs suddenly or over a short period of time (e.g., slamming on the brakes in traffic) will cause your heart to beat faster and blood vessels to dilate. In the short-term this isn’t a problem, but constant spikes in heart rate and dilation of blood vessels increases the risk of hypertension, heart attack, and stroke.
Stress can even lead to diabetes. By definition, the fight or flight response is what gives you the energy to act. To act, you need epinephrine and cortisol (what the American Psychological Association refers to as “stress hormones”) to make your liver produce extra glucose. Over time, if your body doesn’t use all that new blood sugar, it’s possible to develop Type 2 Diabetes.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Where your gut is concerned, stress can contribute to:
- acid reflux
It can drain your nervous system. Stress can contribute to erectile dysfunction in men and absent or irregular menstrual cycles in women. It can play havoc with your libido.
Suffice it to say, stress will mess you up.
5 Healthy Ways to Manage Stress
Getting rid of stress isn’t easy. Because there are so many factors beyond our control, the best we can do is to help each other and ourselves when we can. Telling an anxious person to “just relax” isn’t enough. The first step is learning to recognize when the stress is too big to handle by itself. The second step is learning to back up and take a breath.
Find activities that will help divert your attention:
- It can be as simple as taking a walk, reading a book, or boiling a cup of tea.
- Exercise is a terrific way to lose stress and strengthen your body at the same time. Take up a sport, go for a run, or try some yoga.
- And, on that note, meditation can be a wonderful way to de-clutter your worried mind – though it usually takes time to do it right.
- Don’t neglect the importance of a healthy diet. One common symptom of anxiety is “stress eating.”
- The right supplements can really help, too. A mix of natural and calming herbs that support immunity and grant you energy can be exactly what you need.