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Thursday
Jul302015

This is Your Body on Stress

Do you struggle with lack of energy, inability to sleep through the night, poor memory or inability to lose weight no matter what you try?

One of the most common causes behind these popular complaints is the infamous 6 letter word - STRESS! In fact, up to 90% of medical visits are for stress related problems.

Ask yourself, “On a scale of 1-10 (with 10 feeling overwhelmed or overcommitted), how stressed do I feel?”

Americans have mastered the process of pushing pedal to the metal from the time they roll out of bed in the morning until they collapse in bed at night. In fact, if we let off the gas, we often feel guilty as if we’re lazy or self-indulgent. Over time, however, we can become out of touch with what should be normal (i.e. unstressful) for our bodies and mistake the usual routine for genuine health when optimum well-being actually looks (and feels) much different than what we’re used to. Today, I’ll share with you types of stressors, many hidden or unknown, their impacts on our bodies and minds, and personalized strategies to help manage stress.

What Causes Stress

Let’s start by exploring the different types of stressors, which are factors that create physical and mental stress in the body.

Mental/Emotional Stress 

Relationships (e.g. arguments, divorce, marriage, parenting demands), death of a loved one, fear, negative attitude, job demands, overcommitted schedule, traffic, finances, lack of work/life balance

Physical Stress

Overtraining (more common than you think), sedentary lifestyle, injury, lack of sleep, poor posture

Physiological Stress

Illness, infection, allergies (food and/or environmental), hormone imbalances, healing wounds

Chemical Stress

Drugs (illegal and prescription medications), alcohol, caffeine, smoking

Nutritional Stress

Poor eating habits, processed food, high sugar diet, poor nutrient quality, imbalanced diet, inadequate protein and fruit/vegetable intake

Environmental Stress

Toxins (which are everywhere), chemicals/pesticides in our food, crops, lawn care, unclean air, unfiltered water, too much sunlight/UV, electromagnetic frequencies (electronics)

How many of the above stressors were you able to claim? More than you thought? Don’t worry - you're not alone. Now that we can detect our stressors, how do they impact the health of our bodies and minds? The following list is in no way exhaustive, but let it give you a sense of the primary health effects of “unmanaged” stress.

Effects of Stress

Digestive Dysfunction

Stress shuts down the digestive tract, oftentimes creating inflammation with bloating, gas, heartburn and constipation or diarrhea as well as food and/or environmental allergies.

Immune Suppression

Because stress suppresses the immune system, you are at an increased risk for infections and illness and may have a harder time shaking them.

Musculoskeletal Breakdown

Chronic stress can break down bone and muscle over time and increase a tendency toward neck and back pain, osteoporosis, fibromyalgia or TMJ.

Cognitive Decline

Chronic stress increases the risk of depression, mood changes, memory decline, foggy brain, migraines and sleep disturbances

Hormone Shifts

Stress related hormonal changes can result in the following effects:

  • Decreased serotonin, creating sugar/carbohydrate cravings and lower mood
  • Decreased melatonin, disrupting sleep quality
  • Increased insulin, which shuts down ability to burn fat especially around the midsection
  • Lowered thyroid function, which impacts energy levels and metabolism/ability to lose weight effectively

Ways to Manage Stress

All this said, it’s important not to feel defeated. No, you can’t dodge stress and its impacts on your health and overall functioning, but there’s plenty that you CAN do about it!

In reality, the point isn’t even the stress itself. We all have it, and it’s not going away anytime soon.

The point is how we perceive stress and manage it. How we process stress is the factor that will support or sabotage our health. This is a matter of finding strategies that fit your personality. Consider the following list a starter for the many ideas you can access to help alleviate the mental and physical breakdown from chronic, unmanaged stress.

Meditation

This may be one of the hardest but most impactful activities to try. We tend to be very good at training our bodies these days but not our minds. As a result, the mind is an untapped power.

Have you ever heard people say “It’s all in your mind” or “It’s all in your attitude”? Think about your hard workouts and sprints to the finish line. Sure, you need to have the physical strength and stamina to get you there, but much of the game is mental. Training your mind out of the planning and wandering mode takes time. I encourage you to start small with just 3-5 minutes a day and gradually work up to 20 minutes a day. If you have a smart phone, you have access to a slew of apps that will guide you for free or very low cost. Check out several, and determine the best fit for your needs and personality.

Deep Abdominal Breathing 

Have you ever paid attention to your breath when you're under stress? It becomes very shallow and may even stop! Deep abdominal breathing, even five deep breaths, allows for a full oxygen exchange and stimulates the “brake” side of our nervous system, relaxing our minds and bodies. There are phone apps to guide you, or you can just put your hand on your lower belly (below your belly button) and focus on the rise of your belly with your inhale and the lowering of your belly with your exhale.

Gentle Yoga or Tai Chi

I have certainly been in my share of “hard-core” yoga classes, which are not as healing to the body and mind. If you notice you are holding your breath and/or shaking in difficult poses, the practice isn’t what I’d consider “gentle” for your needs. Tai Chi, gentle yoga and other recovery-based classes focus on breath work and stretching, which relaxes the body.

Journaling

By writing down your struggles, frustrations or worries, you release your mind on paper. You can also focus on the positives in your life by keeping a gratitude journal. When we focus on the positive, we reduce the power of stress over our minds and help naturally heal our bodies.

Massage

This is probably my favorite strategy. Aim for once a month minimum to help release the physical tension in your body and re-generate your nervous system.

Talk with one of our professional club or LifeSpa staff today about other practices and services that can help you get a handle on stress. Thanks for reading. 

In health, Cindi Lockhart - Sr. Program Manager of Health and Nutrition Coaching 

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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