Stress can be defined as any type of change that causes physical, emotional or psychological strain. However, not all types of stress are harmful or even negative. There are a few different types of stress that we encounter:
* Eustress, a type of stress that is fun and exciting, and keeps us vital (e.g. skiing down a slope or racing to meet a deadline)
* Acute Stress, a very short-term type of stress that can either be positive (eustress) or more distressing (what we normally think of when we think of ‘stress’) ; this is the type of stress we most often encounter in day-to-day life (e.g. skiing down said slope or dealing with road rage)
* Episodic Acute Stress, where acute stress seems to run rampant and be a way of life, creating a life of relative chaos (e.g. the type of stress that coined the terms ‘drama queen’ and ‘absent-minded professor’)
* Chronic Stress, the type of stress that seems never-ending and inescapable, like the stress of a bad marriage or an extremely taxing job (this type of stress can lead to burnout).
The Fight or Flight Response
Stress can trigger the body’s response to perceived threat or danger, the Fight-or-Flight response. During this reaction, certain hormones like adrenalin and cortisol are released, speeding the heart rate, slowing digestion, shunting blood flow to major muscle groups, and changing various other autonomic nervous functions, giving the body a burst of energy and strength. Originally named for its ability to enable us to physically fight or run away when faced with danger, it’s now activated in situations where neither response is appropriate, like in traffic or during a stressful day at work. When the perceived threat is gone, systems are designed to return to normal function via the relaxation response, but in our times of chronic stress, this often doesn’t happen enough, causing damage to the body.
Stress and Health: Implications of Chronic Stress
When faced with chronic stress and an overactivated autonomic nervous system, people begin to see physical symptoms. The first symptoms are relatively mild, like chronic headaches and increased susceptibility to colds. With more exposure to chronic stress, however, more serious health problems may develop. These stress-influenced conditions include, but are not limited to:
- hair loss
- heart disease
- obesityobsessive-compulsive or anxiety disorder
- sexual dysfunction
- tooth and gum disease
- cancer (possibly)
According to a study by the British Medical Journal, chronic stress has been linked to the development of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, as well as other conditions. This is because they found a link between chronic job stress and metabolic syndrome, which is a group of factors that, together, increase the risk of these diseases, including high blood pressure, insulin resistance, central obesity (excessive abdominal fat, which has been linked to increased cortisol in the bloodstream, as well as several other health problems). They found that greater levels of job stress increased people’s chances of developing metabolic syndrome: the higher the stress level, the greater the chance of developing metabolic syndrome.
Cortisol is an important hormone in the body, secreted by the adrenal glands and involved in the following functions and more:
- Proper glucose metabolism
- Regulation of blood pressure
- Insulin release for blood sugar maintenance
- Immune function
- Inflammatory response
Normally, it’s present in the body at higher levels in the morning, and at its lowest at night. Although stress isn’t the only reason that cortisol is secreted into the bloodstream, it has been termed “the stress hormone” because it’s also secreted in higher levels during the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response to stress, and is responsible for several stress-related changes in the body.
Small increases of cortisol have some positive effects:
- A quick burst of energy for survival reasons
- Heightened memory functions
- A burst of increased immunity
- Lower sensitivity to pain
- Helps maintain homeostasis in the body
While cortisol is an important and helpful part of the body’s response to stress, it’s important that the body’s relaxation response to be activated so the body’s functions can return to normal following a stressful event. Unfortunately, in our current high-stress culture, the body’s stress response is activated so often that the body doesn’t always have a chance to return to normal, resulting in a state of chronic stress.
Higher and more prolonged levels of cortisol in the bloodstream (like those associated with chronic stress) have been shown to have negative effects, such as:
- Impaired cognitive performance
- Suppressed thyroid function
- Blood sugar imbalances such as hyperglycemia
- Decreased bone density
- Decrease in muscle tissue
- Higher blood pressure
- Lowered immunity and inflammatory responses in the body, slowed wound healing, and other health consequences
- Increased abdominal fat, which is associated with a greater amount of health problems than fat deposited in other areas of the body. Some of the health problems associated with increased stomach fat are heart attacks, strokes, the development of metabolic syndrome, higher levels of “bad” cholesterol (LDL) and lower levels of “good” cholesterol (HDL), which can lead to other health problems!
To keep cortisol levels healthy and under control, the body’s relaxation response should be activated after the fight or flight response occurs. You can learn to relax your body with various stress management techniques, and you can make lifestyle changes in order to keep your body from reacting to stress in the first place.
- Get regular exercise – exercise reduces stress and feelings of powerlessness. It also releases endorphins which improve our mood and immune system.
- Eat whole foods- avoiding junk food, sugar and alcohol will help decrease your body’s stress. These foods are often inflammatory to the body and provided added stress to our body.
- Get your ZZZ’s- getting enough sleep is not an optional goal- it is critical to your mental and physical health. Sleep deprivation compromises your health and well being.
- Balanced living- too much of anything is not good for us- we need to balance our work, home and spiritual life. Setting healthy boundaries with family, friends and co-workers is an essential part of reducing stress in your life.
For more information on de-stressing your life with Pilates 1901 classes and private training, call Tina at 913 499 7510 today! Pilates is an exercise form that supports your body so that you feel refreshed and renewed at the end of your session! And that’s a recipe for success and less stress any day!