We all know the signs of common stress and chronic stress:
- Tense shoulders
- Lower back pain
- Achy joints
- Diminished sleep
- Higher frustration levels
- Less emotional control
- Impaired judgment.
Do you notice how the symptoms aren’t just physical? It affects our entire being. We carry that stress in our minds and our bodies.
It can become “trapped” there if we don’t find a better way to both cope with the stress and release our bodies of it. Stress doesn’t have to take over our lives. We can take control. Scientists explain how to release stress trapped in your body.
The fatal facts about stress
Stress is one of the biggest killers of humanity. It is linked as a contributing factor in the top 6 causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung diseases, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide. Stress rules our every decision if we let it pile up. We may eat poorly, smoke, drink, do drugs, fail to exercise, not sleep properly, work too hard, and the list could continue.
Consider these facts WebMD published in Dec. 2017 in an article about stress management:
- 43% of all adults have some physical ailment as a result of stress.
- 75-90% of all doctor visits are due to symptoms related to stress
- Stress has proven itself to be a factor in a multitude of health issues such as high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes, asthma, depression, anxiety, and more.
- Stress is brought into work and can create a workplace hazard. According to The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, stress is a $300 billion annual expense in the American work industry.
- Constant, untreated stress can account for 50% or more of an emotional illness occurring in a lifetime.
All that said; however, one fact remains: Stress is a part of life. What can we do? We can learn to cope better with the situations creating stress. We can ensure it doesn’t pile up by saying “NO” when we are overtasked. Finally, we can learn to release it to prevent it from accumulating on our bodies and our minds.
Stress vs. Chronic Stress
According to Medline Plus, in an article on stress, there are 3 different types of stress:
- Daily or routine stress from our regular lives such as going to work, cooking dinner, getting the children to bed, etc..
- Sudden, dramatic, negative stress. This is represented by a divorce, losing one’s job, severe injury, or a long-lasting illness.
- Traumatic stress is the type of stress from an act of crime, such as an assault, burglary, kidnapping etc. Other examples include a severe accident, injury or sudden illness, and any disaster occurring from nature.
Usually, our daily stresses and even our sudden stresses can be adapted to, and we are able to cope. It does entail knowing how to handle stress as it occurs, as well as how to relieve it before it becomes overwhelming.
What happens when it never seems to stop – when there never seems to be a reprieve, or you lack the skills or knowledge to deal with it and support is minimal? It becomes chronic stress. Scientists have established that it is chronic and traumatic stress which causes the most physical and psychological damage.
Chronic stress is pervasive, long-lasting stress levels which place people in a state of constant awareness. The hormones in our body continue to flood our system because they believe that we are in a dangerous situation in which fight-or-flight is imminent. These hormones then interact with our other systems and our brain, creating a chain reaction and a deadly cycle.
Stress and our bodies
The fact that how and what we think about affects the rest of our body is becoming increasingly accepted and understood. It is a bit difficult to ignore since we live it every day. When you are having a day where you feel sad, you move slower, find it harder to concentrate, and your body actually feels heavier and less coordinated.
The opposite is true when it’s a happy day. Then, you’ve got a bounce in your step, more energy, and your thinking is faster and sharper. These aren’t just coincidences. How we feel is directly correlated to how our bodies perform and react. It was designed that way.
An article in the American Psychological Association outlines the effects stress has on our bodies and virtually all of our systems:
1 – Musculoskeletal impacts of stress
The musculoskeletal system is probably the one most of us are familiar with. That familiar tightening across our shoulders, stiffening of our neck, the firm grip of tension on our lower back. When this is affected chronically, it can lead to migraine or tension headaches or delayed recovery from a legitimate injury, particularly if you feel very negatively about the injury or the potential of recovery.
2 – Respiratory system
We may have either experienced or witnessed an individual hyperventilating due to a panic attack, severe emotional distress, or anxiety. When your body becomes overly stressed, it quickens up our breathing to push more blood and oxygen to our muscles. For an average person, this may not last very long, and we can recover quickly. For a person with COPD or asthma, this can cause respiratory distress and the need to use a fast-acting inhaler to calm their breathing down.
Additionally, as mentioned above, if an individual has high anxiety, they can quickly accelerate into a panic attack and hyperventilate, which can result in passing out if preventative measures are not taken quickly.
3 – Impact on our heart and circulatory system
The best way to understand how our heart and blood vessels are affected is to know what happens in our body just when an unexpected event occurs. This could be being cut off in traffic and having to slam on your brakes or seeing your young child fall into the pool.
Under this circumstance, our heart rate rapidly increases, and our heart muscle must contract stronger. This happens due to the release of stress hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol. Simultaneously, our blood vessels widen to allow more blood to pump to our muscles and back into our hearts. This, in turn, increases our blood pressure. This bodily response is familiar to us as the “fight-or-flight” response.
Now, imagine your body going through this process on a near-daily basis as it would if you had chronic stress. It can create inflammation in the coronary arteries and potentially increase cholesterol levels. Both factors have been linked to causing hypertension, strokes, and heart attacks.
For women who are pre-menopausal, extra estrogen can aid in their ability to handle stress and therefore decrease the effects of stress. For postmenopausal women, estrogen is no longer present to provide protection, thus increasing the risk of stress-causing heart disease.
4 – The gastrointestinal system
Your gastrointestinal system is comprised of your esophagus, your stomach, and your intestines. The stress here shows itself through our reaction to it. When we become stressed, our appetite fluctuates. We may overeat or lose our appetite. Of course, then when we do eat, we tend to eat foods that require the least amount of effort to prepare, are emotionally satisfying, and provide us with quick energy to keep going. Those foods usually consist of fast food or restaurant foods, processed foods, high fat, carbohydrates, and sugar. You may even start smoking or increasing smoking and drinking, which can lead to acid reflux.
Acid reflux or GERD can irritate the lining of your esophagus, causing spasms or throat closures upon eating certain foods. Contrary to popular opinion, stress does not increase stomach acid. Poor eating changes how your esophagus performs, and it can then not close the valve properly to prevent acid from coming up from the stomach.
You may start experiencing bloating, stomach cramps, nausea, or even vomiting when your stomach is affected. As your intestines become reactive, you will experience more bloating, constipation or diarrhea, colon cramps, gassiness, and inflammation.
5 – Central nervous system
The nervous system regulates how your entire body reacts to any stimuli. In relation to chronic stress, it continually tells your body to be hypervigilant in order to handle any perceived threat. This results in your breathing staying rapid, your heartbeat high, your muscles tense and all your senses on high alert. Over time, this creates a tremendous drain on your body.
6 – Stress impacts our reproduction
The reproductive system, for both men and women, can be affected. It can:
- decrease sex drive
- reduce the count of healthy sperm or their proper formation
- inhibit the ability to become pregnant
- create infections of the genitalia or reproductive system
- increase depression in new mothers,
- and increase the severity of symptoms for perimenopausal or menopausal women.
How to release stress from your body
Being conscious of your stress levels and how it is affecting your body is a great tool toward taking steps to release it from your body. Until you can recognize it and take control, you can’t take steps to rid yourself of it or even to look into steps you can do to prevent it.
It is vital to know that releasing stress does not need to be a drawn-out process. Here are a few simple methods when you are short on time:
- Sit in your car, on the toilet, or in the dog house. It doesn’t matter where. Either step away or mentally check out for a minute. Literally, it can be a minute or longer. Take deep, controlled breaths. In through your nose, out through your mouth. 3 deep breaths can do wonders to calm your heartbeat, relax your body a little, and calm your mind.
- I don’t mean stretch for the stapler to throw it at your boss. Stand up, close your eyes, take a breath, and reach up as high as you can. Do this a few times. You can also include touching your toes if you are able and so inclined.
- Inhale a comforting scent. Carry some essential oils of what makes you feel calm. I prefer lavender, lemon, or sandalwood. It is even possible to buy a necklace that will hold a few drops. Take a moment to breathe it in.
When you are away from the circumstance and have more time, here are some additional ways to release trapped stress:
- It doesn’t need to be intense or extended. 15 minutes of stretching, yoga, kickboxing, treadmill, running in place, or jumping rope will do. Whatever gets you moving and allows your body to use up some of those extra hormones is beneficial.
- I mentioned 3 deep breaths above. Try increasing the 3 deep breathes to 10 minutes of quietly sitting and breathing. Put in earplugs if you must to drown out the noise around you.
- We hold our stress in our muscles and joints. Getting a massage can aid in releasing that pent up stress.
- Laugh or Smile. I know, if you had something funny happening in your life right now, you wouldn’t be so stressed, right? Turn on a comedian you like, call a funny friend, read memes on Facebook, or read a comic strip. The act of laughing, or even just smiling, has an almost instantaneous stress release on our mind and body.
- Reach out to someone. Call a friend, a family member, your dog, or a professional. Sometimes just letting the emotions out of your head can help you see things differently. Cry, yell, scream, or talk. Just let it out.
Final Thoughts on the Importance of Releasing Your Stress
Learning to not only cope with stress daily but how to recognize if it is built up in your body and is too heavy to carry is extremely important. Scientists have shown how we hold that stress in our bodies, and it attacks every cell of our body if stress becomes chronic. Learning to release trapped stress is essential to your quality of life.