You have two systems in your body that help you respond to stress. These are the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) – also known as the “flight or fight” system and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) – also known as the “rest and digest” system. It is your body’s goal to remain healthy by keeping these two systems in balance. However, stress in all of its forms can cause an over activation of the SNS which can eventually lead to illness and disease.
Effects of Stress on Your Body
Regardless of whether you are under mental, emotional or physical stress your body perceives all three of these the same. This means that whether you are getting attacked by a tiger or stressed about being late for work, your body does not know the difference!
When your body feels stress, the SNS system will kick in to protect you from the stressor and will release a set of hormones, adrenaline and cortisol (made by the adrenal glands). These hormones increase your heart rate and breathing rate and decrease digestion, reproduction, physical growth and the immune system. When the SNS gets turned on repeatedly or in some cases remains on it can lead to weight gain, difficulty sleeping, frequent colds, hormone imbalances, inability to handle stress and chronic illness. Periods of short term stress triggers the immune system to prepare for injury or infection. Long term stress causes deterioration of the immune system which leads to chronic illness.
It takes your body approximately 40-60 minutes to return cortisol to its baseline once the actual or perceived threat is finished. Once cortisol returns to its baseline the intestines will resume digesting food, the sex organs kick back into gear and the immune system is ready to fight infections and illness. Therefore, if you are always stressed, cortisol never has the chance to come back to baseline and your body will continue to breakdown. This is why stress management is so important!
What many people also don’t know is that not only do the sex organs and digestion become affected with stress but so does the brain. Current research is showing that prolonged stress with increased cortisol affects the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for forming new memories. If you are having difficulty remembering new information, stress could be the reason why.
So how can you begin to manage your stress?
Quick Tips for Managing Stress
1. Sleep- Sleep is so important in helping your body repair. Between 10pm-2am, physical repair of your body takes place and between 2am-6am cognitive repair takes place. It is helpful to be in bed no later than 10:30pm.
2. Avoid bedtime snacks that are high in sugar or consist of grains. This raises glucose levels and inhibits sleep. Typically a snack higher in fat and protein is good before bed.
3. No TV or computers before bed. These stimulate the brain and make it harder to fall asleep.
4. Sleep in complete darkness. When light hits the eyes or is felt by the skin the circadian cycle gets interrupted and affects melatonin and serotonin. These two important hormones are needed for sleep and bodily repair.
5. Eat balanced and frequent meals throughout the day. When you skip meals it affects your blood sugar levels and this action stresses the adrenal glands, putting your body in a stressed state that you might not even be aware of.
6. Make time for yourself and do something that makes you happy and is relaxing.
7. Listen to calm, soothing music during relaxation time.
8. Begin doing exercises that stimulate the PNS. Exercises such as yoga, tai chi, qi gong or meditation will help the PNS slow down and help the body heal.
9. Make a list of all of your stressors and begin eliminating one by one. For example, maybe you commit to too many things and can begin saying no and setting boundaries for yourself.
10. Keep a journal so that you can track stressors that you might not even know you have.