Yoga, meditation, mindfulness and other stress reduction techniques are incredibly popular these days – and with good reason!
Stress is the way your body responds to any kind of demand or pressure. While moderate, short-lived stress can be a good thing, chronic stress can wreak havoc on your life.
Understanding what’s happening inside your body during times of stress and learning techniques to better manage your stress levels can help you avoid the related health problems, which include high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes.
The Stress Hormones: Cortisol and Adrenaline
Cortisol and adrenaline are the most common stress hormones. They’re primarily responsible for your “fight-or-flight” response in any situation you deem stressful. The Mayo Clinic offers a great explanation of how these hormones orchestrate an instantaneous process in your body to protect you from perceived danger:
When you encounter a perceived threat, your brain sets off an alarm system in your body to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.
Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts energy supplies.
Cortisol increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances your brain's use of the glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair your tissues. Cortisol also suppresses functions and systems in your body that are nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation.
Once a perceived threat has passed, hormone levels return to normal. As adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, your heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels, and other systems resume their regular activities.
The good news is that we’re all equipped with this natural survival instinct. Your body is very well-designed to manage the inevitable stressful experiences of life. In fact, a small level of stress is beneficial. It boosts your alertness, performance, brain power, resilience and even strengthens your immune system.
Prolonged Stress Disturbs Well-Being
The bad news is that trouble arises when your stress-response system is activated for too long. This is when your stress hormones begin to disrupt your body’s processes and upsets your overall well-being. Common effects of chronic stress include the following:
Body: Headache, muscle tension or pain, chest pain, fatigue, change in sex drive, stomach upset, sleep problems
Mood: Anxiety, restlessness, lack of motivation or focus, feeling overwhelmed, irritability or anger, sadness or depression
Behavior: Overeating or undereating, angry outbursts, drug or alcohol abuse, tobacco use, social withdrawal, exercising less often
Six Steps to De-stress
It’s important to recognize when stress is becoming chronic, lasting for days or weeks, and to take steps to de-stress your mind and body. Here are a few options you may consider:
- Set aside your commitments and take some time for yourself.
- Make sure you’re eating and sleeping well.
- Find time to be still. Take an ever-popular yoga, meditation or mindfulness class.
- Create a gratitude practice, which research shows contributes to greater emotional well-being and physical health.
- Spend time with a friend who can share your problems – and laugh – with!
- Try something new. Explore less common techniques for managing stress, such as Vibroacoustic sound therapy.