It may come as no surprise to you that we, as Americans, are more stressed than ever before. According to the American Psychological Association's annual "Stress in America" survey, 63 percent of Americans feel that the future of this country is a significant source of stress. Compound this with perineal personal stressors like money, work, family obligations, physical health, and mental wellness and it is no surprise that we are all feeling stressed out regardless of our age, gender, socioeconomic status, and personal history. Unfortunately, stress does not just affect our mental well-being but our physical well-being as well.
Stress and Your Body
The human body is remarkably prepared to deal with a perceived threat or danger. In a "fight or flight" situation, your pupils dilate, your heart rate increases, your digestion slows, and your body is flooded with stress hormones including cortisol, epinephrine, oxytocin, and serotonin (to name a few). Once the danger has passed, your body slowly regains its equilibrium, leaving you feeling tired and ready for rest. But what happens when you are constantly in this state of fight or flight?
Weight Gain & Digestive Problems
Cortisol raises your blood sugar, not through digestion, but through a process that involves metabolizing any available fat, protein or carbohydrate. While this is ideal when you need to run away from a dangerous animal, it can lead to weight gain and muscle loss in prolonged exposure. The fight or flight response also diverts blood flow away from digestion and toward the muscles in the body. The body cannot absorb nutrients, waste is not efficiently eliminated and, in some cases, stomach acid passes into the esophagus in what is commonly known as "heartburn".
Since stress is designed to help your body either ward off an attack or run away from a would-be attacker, muscle contraction is often associated with a perceived threat. Take on too many deadlines, butt heads with your boss or argue with your partner and you may just find that you are left with head and neck pain from muscle tension. Allow the stress to go on too long and you may find your quality of life diminishing because of these aches and pains.
Some people claim to work best under pressure. In the short-term, a looming deadline or approaching crisis can ready you to respond. However, the adrenal glands that emit the stress hormones that make you feel hyper-focused and ready to work are designed to only work in short, temporary bursts. You may be more productive than ever with stress, but that productivity fade just as quickly as it came as your adrenal glands become fatigued.
Make no mistake, stress is addictive. Remember the hormones oxytocin and serotonin? While they are some of the compounds that flood the brain when you are stressed, they are also linked to feelings of love, sexual pleasure, bonding, and mood regulation. However, as cortisol levels rise, as they are known to do with chronic stress, feel-good chemical production begins to decline. Without enough oxytocin and serotonin, you are more likely to experience anxiety and depression.
While stress is addictive, it is possible to break the cycle of stress in your life. Your long-term health may depend on it.