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How Does Stress Affect Your Body?

Info Relinque - Monday, October 31, 2011

The Effects Of Stress On Your Body.

In this article we look at how stress affects your body and the best ways to decrease the stress in your life.

Is your life too busy? Does it seem there are never enough hours in the day? Is your work constantly making increasing demands on your time? Do you lay awake at night thinking about how you are going to pay the bills? You’re not alone. Stress is now considered a major health epidemic in modern society, and it is estimated that 60 - 70% of all medical consultations are due to stress in some form or another.

Headaches, neck pain, shoulder pain, jaw pain and muscular aches can all be caused by stress. Is your health being compromised by too much stress?

What is Stress?
Stress can be defined as a state of mental or emotional strain and tension that arises when an individual believes they are unable to cope with adverse or challenging circumstances. The word ‘believes’ is used here because the brain cannot distinguish between a real or perceived threat. It responds to both real and perceived threats in exactly the same way.

What Happens to your Body When you are Stressed?
When you are faced with what you believe to be a threatening situation, your brain triggers a cascade of chemical reactions that causes the release of many stress hormones including cortical, adrenaline and noradrenalin. These stress hormones have a very powerful and widespread affect on your body, and give you the extra strength, speed, and awareness you need to deal with the threatening situation. If a threat approaches you can either run away(flight) or stand your ground and fight. This is commonly known as the flight/ fight response.

The brains response to stress:
-In response to the perceived threat, a part of your brain called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal(HPA) system is activated. This results in the release of hormones such as cortical which is the primary stress hormone, adrenaline, and noradrenalin.
-Chemicals released into the brain increase your alertness, and sense of anxiety. They also suppress other areas of the brain concerned with short term memory, concentration, inhibition, and rational thought. This allows you to make urgent, and more precise decisions.
The heart and lungs response to stress:
- Heart rate increases.
- Blood pressure increases.
- Breathing rate increases, and your lungs take in more oxygen.
The circulatory systems response to stress:
- The spleen releases red and white blood cells which allows your body to transport more oxygen throughout the body. Blood flow is diverted away from less important areas of the body such as the digestive system and skin, and directed to the muscles. Blood flow to the muscles can increase by around 300% to prepare for the threat.
- Blood clots more quickly to help reduce the rate of blood loss if you were injured by the threat.
The digestive systems response to stress:
-Digestion slows as blood is directed to more important organs such as the muscles.
-Metabolic activity also slows.
The skins response to stress:
-Blood is directed away from the skin in case of injury to reduce blood loss. It becomes cool, clammy, and sweaty.
Hearings response to stress:
-Your hearing becomes sharper.
The immune systems response to stress:
-Certain parts of the immune system are suppressed, whilst other, more important components are increased, and redirected to prepare for where the injury is most likely to occur, such as the skin and lymph nodes.
The mouths response to stress:
-Your mouth dries up and digestive juices reduce as blood is directed to more important areas.
The muscles response to stress:
-Your muscles tense up in anticipation of the threat. Blood flow will increase by up to 300%

Relaxation Response: When the Stress is over.
Around three minutes after the threat has passed, and if no injuries have been sustained, the parasympathetic nervous system turns the Flight/ Fight system off. The stress hormones return to normal levels, and your body returns to it’s resting state.

Why is Stress Such a Problem in Modern Society?
Mankind has survived and prospered on earth for thousands of years, overcoming many difficult and stressful times. One factor that has enabled us to survive so well is our flight/ fight response. This primitive response was designed for dealing short term threats, maybe a few seconds to a minute. It enabled us to flee the path of wild predators and to chase and catch our dinner; either we kill it, or it kills us!

Unfortunately, over the last few hundred years, society has evolved at a far greater pace than our body has been able to keep up with. Our body was not designed to live in this complex, crowded, hyper stimulating modern society, where you are on call and contactable 24 hours of the day. Our lives today are not run by the natural rhythms of primitive times, but instead by deadlines, clocks and all sorts of mobile phones. The stresses we face in today society are psychological in nature, and are often chronic - lasting weeks, to months, and in some cases many years. Our modern day stresses are not wild animals, but relationship problems, financial worries, work related problems etc., etc. The stresses we face today were not around thousands of years ago, and they are generally not problems that we can run away from.

The main problem with the types of stresses we face today is that they are chronic in nature, and are not easily resolved. The flight/ fight response that our body uses to deal with stressful situations was designed to be activated occasionally. Unfortunately, modern society causes this response to be triggered repeatedly. This leads to the potentially dangerous situation where there is an excessive production of the stress hormones including cortical, adrenaline and noradrenalin being repeatedly released into our bodies.

How does Stress harm your Body?
Exposure to chronic stress may have the following effects on your body:
-Increased blood pressure, and increased risk of stroke.
-Increased risk of heart attack
-Decreased immune function, and increased risk of infection.
-Increased risk of skin irritations such as excema and psoriasis.
-Increased muscular aches and pain.
-Headaches associated with muscle spasm.

How can we Decrease our Stress?
The first and most important question you must ask yourself is; what is causing the stress? Once you understand the triggers of your stress, and begin to recognise the changes in your body that occur during the flight/ fight response, you will be in a great position to minimise the harmful effects of chronic stress.  Now, you will be able to harness the energy and positive effects of the flight/ fight response such as alertness, and mental acuity in order to change the environment around. Your intent must be to use the energy produced to help you, rather than harm you, and focus on a solution rather than the cause. 

Here are a few things you might like to consider to decrease stress in your life:

-Abdominal breathing to decrease stress:
Abdominal breathing is considered by many to be one of the simplest and most effective methods to control excessive stress. When you are stressed, your body moves away from relaxed abdominal breathing, and towards rapid and shallow chest breathing. This change is essential in the short term to avoid personal harm, however, if you constantly trigger the flight/ fight response, this type of breathing unfortunately becomes habitual. Prolonged rapid and shallow chest breathing can lead to a decrease in the amount of oxygen taken up by the body, and causes increased muscular tension on the upper back and neck muscles. Relaxed abdominal breathing is slow and calm and takes the breath all the way down into the lungs. This style of breathing will help decrease tension and calm anxiety.

-Physical exercise to decrease stress:
Another effective way to moderate the effects of chronic stress is with physical exercise. Remember the flight/ fight response ultimately results in physical activity - either you stand and fight against the threat, or you run(flight) from the threat. When you exercise you help your body metabolise stress hormones, leaving you more relaxed. The type of exercise doesn’t really matter, as long as it raises your heart rate, and gets your blood flowing.

One of the best forms of exercise to decrease the effects of chronic stress that we recommend at our clinic in Ivanhoe is Pilates. Pilates is physically challenging, and one of the only forms of exercise that promotes correct abdominal breathing. Pilates will help calm the mind, decrease muscular tension in your upper back and neck, and restore flexible movement to your spine.

-Nutrition to decrease stress:
Eating a balanced diet that includes fresh seasonal fruit and vegetables can be vital in providing your body with essential antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.

-Make time for yourself to decrease stress:
Use this time to organise your life, calm your mind, and do the things that bring you joy!

-Relaxation techniques to decrease stress:
Activities such as yoga, meditation and various relaxation techniques have all been shown to help people with stress.

-Massage to decrease stress:
Massage can be a very effective way to manage stress. Regular massage will help decrease muscular tension in your back and neck, and can help reduce headaches. We recommend massage at our clinic in Ivanhoe as a way to decrease the effects of stress.

When balance and harmony is restored to your body, less energy is used in thought and anxiety, leaving you more time and energy to do the things that bring you joy.

If you have any questions regarding massage or pilates contact Relinque in Melbourne.

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