Manage Your Stress to Live a Better Life
How chronic stress affects your body and mind and what to do about it
Your presentation is due tomorrow. The dog is throwing up and needs to visit the vet. You're arguing with your brother over whose turn it is to help your aging parents with a home project. Your heart pounds, your breathing accelerates, and your stomach twists into hard knots. We're all overly familiar with acute stress and its symptoms. They are a primitive fight or flight response meant to boost enough energy for you to spin-kick a threat or run far away.
The Negative Effects of Stress
Dr. Erin Olivo, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of Wise Mind Living explains other effects that intense, short-term stress can wreak on the human body. "If someone cuts in front of me while I'm driving, I release more cortisol, increasing platelet production so if I were to get in a fight I wouldn't bleed to death. My digestive tract is not moving, because if I have to run away from a lion I'm not digesting that sandwich I just ate."
She adds, "Bodies are made to withstand acute stressors. It's not dangerous. But we don't want stress chronically. Chronic unmanaged stressors are what ultimately cause problems."
When the human body is continually assaulted by high stakes, long term pressures, like ongoing money problems or caring for a sick loved one, the fallout may affect both the body and the brain. Chronic stress can shrink the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that regulates memory and learning, disrupt synapse regulation, and increase your risk for anxiety and depression.
"One-fourth to one-third of all visits to primary physicians are stress-related," Olivo says. "People have very real symptoms of other things, like headaches or lower back pain, but there is often no disease or injury. The symptoms are stress responses."
Your Personality May Affect Stress
Besides, different personalities react to stress differently. A 2015 Iranian study showed that people with adaptive personality traits cope significantly better with stress, while those with neuroticism — a tendency to view life through a negative, anxiety-ridden lens — lean toward unhealthy, avoidant coping mechanisms.
Olivo says that whatever your personality type is "everyone needs to know their triggers. If it's not possible to avoid your triggers, prepare yourself with positive coping tools."
"Be healthy so your body can handle stressors. Get regular sleep, exercise, eat a balanced diet. Stop regularly throughout the day and relax your body. The most effective way to do this is to monitor and slow down breathing. Even ten slow breaths can help." The exhale, she says, is where the magic lies. "I tell my teen patients to hiss like a snake on the exhale. This type of regulated breathing signals your body to calm down."
However, not all stress is bad. "Though stress is a curve of diminishing return, all stress is communicating something to us." If you're regularly reacting to a particular provocation, "…you might have to change something. Stress is there to keep us safe, enhance our performance, and communicate something to us about our environment and what we need to do differently."
Sometimes it can feel impossible to reduce your stress level. However, taking care of yourself and inviting a bit more zen into your life can truly protect your health and happiness.
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