Holy cow, who can identify with this picture? I can feel the stress wafting off this guy.
Today’s blog, chronic stress, is a little bit close to home. It is just as much therapeutic for me as it is information for you, so thank you for reading.
Spoiler alert: We are a nation of stress.
Surprised? I doubt it.
We wear our stress like a badge of honor. We treat it as though it gives us an edge over other people. In passing conversation, we boast about how busy and stressed we are. It can be a downright competition.
“How are you?”
“Oh, great! So busy. I just have so much, I’m exhausted!”
“I hear you! Me, too..”
And the conversation goes on. Admit it, if the person you are talking to isn’t just a little bit stressed out or overwhelmed, you wonder if maybe they could be doing more. Or maybe that’s just me…the old, unenlightened me.
But guess what? The constant stream of cortisol (the stress hormone) coursing through our bodies is actually making us dumber. And less productive. And, well, miserable. It’s even killing us.
So no, it is not a badge to wear proudly. Reducing your stress does not make you lazy, it does not make you less apt to reach your goals or be successful.
Being in a state of homeostasis and "relaxation" is your edge; it will help you live longer and definitely happier...not to mention more successful.
What is Chronic Stress?
When you come across a perceived threat (say, a wild animal running toward you) your hypothalamus, located at the base of your brain, sets off a reaction in your body. A combination of nerve and hormonal signals, this system prompts your adrenal glands, which are on top of your kidneys, to release a surge of hormones, most notably adrenaline and cortisol.
- Adrenaline’s job is to increase your heart rate, elevate your blood pressure and boost energy supplies.
- Cortisol, which is the primary stress hormone, has a heavy job. It speeds up some processes and slows down others. For example, it increases glucose in the bloodstream (for quick energy so you can run away real quick), boosts your brain's use of glucose and increases the accessibility of substances that repair tissues (you know, in case that wild animal bites you).
- Cortisol also inhibits functions that wouldn’t be necessary in a fight-or-flight situation. It changes immune system responses and halts the digestive and reproductive systems. It even impacts the growth process.
This complex natural alarm system communicates with the brain, specifically regions that control mood, motivation and fear.
Now, luckily, the body's stress-response system is usually self-limiting. Once the threat has passed, the body seeks homeostasis. As hormone levels return to normal, your heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels, and other systems resume business as usual. All is right with the world. You outran the wild animal and you are now safe and sound.
What Does Chronic Stress Do?
What happens when there is a steady stream of stressors, you constantly feel under attack and that fight-or-flight reaction stays turned on?
Now that we know exactly what the body does under acute stress, can you imagine what is happening over the long-term?
When your stress-response system is turned on for long periods of time, you will be over-exposed to stress hormones, like cortisol. This means your body will not be functioning as it was intended and all your body’s normal processes will be disrupted. Here is but a short list of possible side effects, which will come as no surprise:
- Digestive problems
- Heart disease
- Sleep problems
- Weight gain
- Memory and concentration impairment
- Sexual dysfunction
Okay, great. Now we know we have a problem, what do we do about it?? You can’t just turn-off the fight-or-flight alarm system, can you?
Great question, and I’m going to answer it for you.
For now, I’m going to go relax. Maybe read a book, eat some lunch with my kiddos.
Hopefully you’ll be doing the same things soon.
Until next time, check in with yourself this week. How often are you feeling overwhelmed? Anxious? Irritable?
Just be aware of your stress and if there are any particular situations or triggers causing you to be in this elevated state. The first step is awareness!
See ya next week!