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Don’t Let Stress Commandeer Your Life

Written by S.O.

Posted on February 11, 2016 at 8:25 pm

It is almost impossible to find one consistent definition of stress, but it is essentially defined as “a state of mental (and physiological) tension, anxiety or worry caused by problems in your life.”

Fight or Flight

Our bodies are preprogrammed to respond to the stress of impending threats such as predators, but in our modern-day sky-scraper jungles we have different stressors than those of our stone-age predecessors. Many people nowadays are chronically stressed because they are workaholics, caretakers for sick family or chronically ill themselves, or struggling with heavy debt. When we are stressed, our adrenal glands (adjacent to the kidneys) release a cocktail of hormones including adrenaline and more abundantly, cortisol. Cortisol has been coined the “stress hormone” because of its prominent role in this fight or flight response. 

A Closer Look at Cortisol

Cortisol is a glucocorticoid hormone which is released upon waking, during rigorous exercise or during acutely stressful events. While cortisol is important for its role in warning the body of danger, it has other responsibilities as well. Registered dietitian and nutritionist Dina Aronson says, “Cortisol also plays an important role in human nutrition. It regulates energy by selecting the right type and amount of substrate (carbohydrate, fat, or protein) the body needs to meet the physiological demands placed on it.” However, cortisol is to blame for negative effects on the body as well, especially when it is over-released due to chronic stress.

Effects of Too Much Cortisol

According to Aronson, some of the ill-effects caused by chronically elevated cortisol levels include:

  1. Gastrointestinal effects: Tummy health is closely connected to the immune system, and when the immune system is interrupted by roller-coaster cortisol levels, stomach trouble such as IBS often ensues.
  2. Adrenal fatigue: After years of overuse, the adrenal glands eventually tire, releasing much less of adrenaline and cortisol than the body has become accustomed to, resulting in a complete crash of the system – fatigue, the blues, a loss of vigor.
  3. Immune system conditions: Even though cortisol helps temporarily reduce inflammation, it can actually have the reverse effect over time, suppressing the immune system which can lead to conditions rife with systemic inflammation, like Lupus. 
  4. Cardiovascular disease: Cortisol increases blood pressure in an attempt to re-oxygenate the blood. Chronic over-stimulation of the adrenal glands also means chronically elevated blood pressure, which as we know, leads to serious heart problems.
  5. Weight gain and obesity: Cortisol increases blood glucose levels and suppress insulin, which is a bad combination if happening too frequently. It can lead to starving cells sending too many hunger signals to the brain.
  6. Fertility and sexual problems: Wellness Guru Dr. Lissa Rankin calls Cortisol the “anti-viagra”, as it can completely obliterate sex drive and sexual function in excess. 

The Importance of Lowering Chronic Stress Levels

After taking a look at the many ill-effects and risks of long term stress and cortisol elevation, it goes without saying we should all be cognizant of our stress and work to lower it. I’m sure you have heard that Type A people are more likely to have issues because of their consistently higher stress levels; according to AboutHealth “High blood pressure is common among ‘Type A’ personalities, and has been documented by research to be as much as 84% more of a risk among those with Type A characteristics.” So if you are a Type A person, or just someone who can’t seem to get out of firing range of stress, it may be time to make a change for the sake of your health and future.

Treatment and Stress Management Techniques

Due to the impacts of chronic stress on the heart, the American Heart Association has developed a comprehensive and thorough stress management plan. Some of the highlights from this plan include:

  • Positive Self-Talk: Our perspective can change how we view and deal with a stressful situation, if we are stuck in a negative self-talk loop things may turn out worse – a self-fulfilling prophecy of negativity – so framing things more positively can help you cope.
  • Remove yourself from stressful situations for a break to regroup before handling it; this can help clear your head to better deal with acute stress.
  • Count to 10 or take 3 or 4 deep breaths before responding in a high stress situation like an interview or argument.
  • Engage in pleasurable activities to help redirect your feelings. Try painting, coffee with a friend, a nature walk or cuddle with a spouse when you start to feel anxiety rising.
  • Relaxation is an essential strategy to master when it comes to chronic stress. Try meditation, Tai Chi, yoga, or a guided imagery break.

If you find that some of these facts and figures are hitting close to home, do yourself a favor and find a stress management plan that best suits your life and needs. Your body will thank you!

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