This blog, 13 Damaging Effects of Stress on Our Health is the third in a series of four that explains how the three tools; healthy eating, safe and effective exercising and maintaining a state of relaxed awareness can help us to get the most out of our lives.
This blog is dedicated to the third tool; cultivating a state of relaxed awareness for flow and focus and to master stress.
Let’s begin from the point that the natural state of our body and mind is relaxation. The official name for this condition is homeostasis; the state of balance in the body where all body functions occur smoothly and the demand for energy matches with the supply of energy.
Put in other words, homeostasis allows our body and mind to run like a smoothly operating machine and vehicle, making it possible to function at our best.
Stress is what disrupts the state of relaxation or homeostasis. Whatever we perceive as a negative, coming to us through one or more of our five senses seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting and smelling, can lead to stress.
Of course, the level of stress we experience depends on many circumstances and therefore always varies. Think of a sliding scale that goes from zero to ten, where zero equals total relaxation and ten a full-blown panic attack.
Emotions precede stress. When the psychiatrist Paul Ekman travelled around the world, he found that, regardless of the part of the world he visited, people had the same facial expressions for certain emotions and concluded that these facial expressions are universal products of human evolution.
He distinguished the following six emotions; anger, fear, disgust, sadness, surprise and happiness.
The first thing to notice is how negatively biased we are as human beings. The first four of the six emotions are negative, number five can be positive or negative and only number six is positive. It may explain why we keep our guard up most of the times and stay on the outlook for threat and danger.
Following the wisdom of ancient cultures, I like to divide emotions into two main categories; fear and love.
The sequence is a follows: challenging events cause instinctive body reactions called emotions that in turn lead to stress with the function to activate the feed, fight, flee and freeze survival actions to move us away from danger or pain to safety or pleasure, after which the body would return to its natural state of relaxation where all internal systems run smoothly.
Here we arrive at a critical point. Our internal body systems don’t run smoothly when we are stressed. To maximize the chance of survival, all body functions that don’t play a role in overcoming the perceived danger are immediately and almost entirely shut down. Examples of these body functions are digestion, assimilation, healing, recovery and rational thinking.
When in a state of stress, blood is shunted away from the gut section to legs and arms for fighting or running and to the brain for fast thinking related to survival. This is no problem if the main cause is staying alive and only lasts for a short while, but becomes a serious problem if stress becomes chronic as so often is the case in our modern society.
Some physical effects of stress on the body are:
- Decreased nutrient absorption and decreased metabolic function as a result of decreased oxygenation and gastrointestinal blood flow. This is why our stomach hurts when you eat in a stressed state.
- Urinary loss of calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc, chromium and selenium.
- Nutrient deficiencies, particularly vitamin C, B, iron, zinc and selenium.
- Increase in LDL levels, blood triglycerides and blood pallets.
- The increase of the stress hormone cortisol, connected to weight gain and inability to lose weight. Excessive output of cortisol accelerates aging of the body.
- Decreased gut flora populations. Healthy intestinal bacteria are destroyed which can lead to immune problems and nutrient deficiencies (see also my first blog on nutrition).
- Decreased Human Growth Hormone, the key hormone for growing, healing and rebuilding body tissues and burn fat.
- Decreased thyroid function, leading to decreased metabolic activity.
- An impaired gastric function which can lead to diarrhea or constipation when food particles enter the small intestines before fully digested.
- Chronically increased insulin levels, eventually leading to insulin resistance. This effect is especially important for people with diabetes or who try to lose weight.
- Decreased bone density (see 2).
- Stress accelerates the aging process making one vulnerable to attracting numerous diseases.
- Loss of muscle mass, lower sex-drive, low energy and increased inflammation.
We have become so accustomed with stress that we hardly if at all, recognize the symptoms such as:
headaches, neck, back pain, muscle spasms, frequent colds, infections, nausea, digestive problems, chest pain, rapid pulse, anxiety, worry, guilt, nervousness, anger, frustration, depression, difficulty concentrating, racing thoughts, feeling overwhelmed, lonely or worthless, compulsive behavior, defensiveness or suspiciousness, social withdrawal, fatigue, frequent use of over-the-counter drugs, weight gain or loss, increased smoking, alcohol or drug use.
All these symptoms can evolve into emotional and physical disorders such as heart attacks, stroke, hypertension, immune system disturbances as well as autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis. Stress can also to neurological disorders like Parkinson’s disease. In fact, stress affects all body systems.
Stress is an important function to activate the survival reactions to overcome danger and bring us back to safety but can become a danger in itself if we don’t recognize its symptoms and let it continue to do its devastating work. The first step to mastering stress is realizing its presence. Unfortunately, many people trivialize the symptoms, simply deny them or confuse being stressed with being busy. Other people feel powerless against the stress they experience, see themselves as victims and endure the effects to the best of their abilities.
The obvious next step is making the decision to reduce the stress followed by actually taking action.
In my blog “The Power of Relaxation and Simplicity” I gave some first ideas to master the effects of stress.
Stress is a natural reaction and can be very helpful to bring us back to safety or to maximize our performance. Examples of the latter are athletes, musicians and actors who use stress as a tool to charge their batteries for peak-performance.
If this is not the case, then there is every reason to master the effects of stress and not let it consume you.
In my presentations and coaching, I give people effective tools and techniques to break free from the negative impacts of stress on their overall health and well-being.
If you want to explore how you or the audience can benefit from our working together, I invite you to visit my website patrickstreppel.com and scroll down on the page to send me a message and start a conversation.
I look forward to talking to you soon.