Chronic Stress Can Ruin Your Health and Your Life. But It Does Not Have to.
Stress can make you sick, unhappy, and fat. Learn why and what you can do about it.
Our body and nervous system are still living in the stone-age, where a stress reaction was needed to run away from an acute, short-term threat.
During these so-called fight-or-flight responses, the body releases stress hormones such as epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) or cortisol.
Adrenaline increases your heart rate, blood pressure, triggers the release of glucose (blood sugar) and makes you breathe faster to ensure extra oxygen supply that will help to make you more alert.
Once the threat is over (aka when our ancestors escaped from the mammal), the levels of the stress hormones get back to normal.
That’s why short bursts of stress can be handled well by your body.
The problem is that finishing a stressful project or being trapped in a traffic jam usually takes longer than running away from a threat. The stress hormones will stay elevated and cause all sorts of issues:
If your blood sugar level stays elevated and you don’t use the extra glucogen to run away or physically fight a threat, the extra energy can be stored as body fat.
And according to Dr. Ann Webster, a psychologist at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, this can increase your risk for diabetes (or make it worse if you are already suffering from it).
Apart from that, chronic stress can lead to other health issues such as high blood pressure, insomnia, anxiety, (mild) depression, or stomach issues.
Some of the above-mentioned issues can cause a chain reaction or a vicious circle:
For example, insomnia can worsen depression or anxiety. The more anxious you are, the fewer the chances that you will find restful sleep.
I was once working in a job that made me frequently fly to different time zones, which always messed with my sleep. I knew that I needed that sleep to perform in my job and I started to stress about my lack of sleep to a degree that I could hardly fall asleep without taking high doses of melatonin and sometimes even chemical over-the-counter sleeping medication.
The medication messed with my stomach and I got more and more concerned about my declining health, which led to even more anxieties…I think you get the point.
So what can you do to actively reduce your stress levels and decrease the risks of getting sick, fat, and unhappy?
Here my top 3 stress-busters that anyone can do anytime:
#1 Exercise — five minutes is all it takes
As you don’t have to run away from predators anymore, you need to find another way to down-regulate your stress hormones. Even if exercise cannot free you from the stress of meeting the next deadline, it can help you to prevent chronically elevated stress hormones:
Exercise increases your stress level short-term because you make your body believe that you are fighting or running away from the threat that caused the stress reaction in the first place. Mimicking this “natural” stress-response will help you to decrease tension, blood sugar levels, blood pressure, etc.
So ideally, you would do burpees or push-ups or squats after every stressful conversation, etc. But as that’s not always easy to implement, you can also go for a walk after work.
A word of warning: doing a strenuous workout such as HIIT or running to close to bedtime can be counter-productive because the elevated stress hormone levels that occur after intense exercise need time to calm down in order to let you fall asleep.
FYI: researchers have found that even five minutes of exercise can stimulate anti-anxiety effects — excuses anyone?
#2 Breathing — your cheap, simple way of tension and stress release
According to Dr. Katherine Rosa of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, deep belly breathing is a great way to stimulate the vagus nerve, which controls your parasympatheic nervous system.
Our nervous system consists of the somatic and the autonomic nervous system. While the somatic nervous is mostly consciously controlled, the autonomic is generally not. It is made up of nerves that transmit impulses and is divided into the parasympathetic and the sympathetic nervous system.
Fight-or-flight responses activate the sympathetic nervous system and create the stress response described in the first part of this article.
I know this is a little boring but bear with me. It will help you to understand how to deal with stress.
The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for digestion, growth, and regeneration. It reduces your heart rate, blood pressure, and stress levels.
If your sympathetic nervous system is overstimulated, the parasympathetic nervous system can’t do its job and you end up wired and tired.
This is why deep belly breathing is such a great way to relieve stress: the parasympathetic nervous system has no chance but to react and to do its magic.
A breathing technique that I like and use is described by Dr. Mark Hyman in its book “The UltraMind Solution”: Take a deep breath into your belly counting to five, pause for a second and then breath out through your mouth to the count of five. Repeat this for five times — can it be any simpler?
#3 Planning: schedule your tasks, schedule your breaks
According to a survey by psychologist and author Robert Epstein, planning is a powerful stress management tool.
Identifying your priorities and planning your day accordingly will not only make you more proactive but also more effective.
Apart from that, documenting what you want to do and checking things off once they’re done can give you a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.
However, it’s not only important to plan tasks, but also to schedule regular breaks (and stick to them).
A study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) suggested that frequent, short breaks throughout the day have no negative impact on productivity. On the contrary, small breaks — especially when combined with physical activity — can increase mental alertness and reduce stress.
If you ask what is the single most important key to longevity, I would say it is avoiding worry, stress, and tension. And if you didn’t ask me, I’d still have to say it.” George Burns