Chronic stress & its effects on the body

Stress is an ongoing reality of life. With prolonged exposure to high stress states however, we can become progressively less aware of the true extent to which stress is affecting our health; whether mentally, physically, emotionally, or otherwise.

A Simple Analogy for Stress and Impaired Awareness

One way I often illustrate the subtle way in which our brain can become increasingly impaired in our awareness of how our current circumstances can be affecting our health is through the following analogy:

Imagine walking into a room and as you walk in, the smell of rotting garbage suddenly fills your nostrils. Immediately, you notice this and have a strong reaction to it. If however, you remain in that room, over time what happens is your brain will slowly start to tune out awareness of that smell and you will become increasingly habituated to it. So, some 10 or 15 minutes pass and now you don’t even notice the same stench in the room that was so repulsive just minutes prior!

Similar to this, when we are initially exposed to high stress levels we will take notice and it will feel jarring. Over time however, with prolonged exposure to high stress, our brain will start to tune out that same awareness of our stress and we become increasingly blunted in our awareness to the true extent of the effects that the stressful situation is having on our health.

As a consequence, a lot of time can pass and we think we are just fine, whereas we might truthfully just be hanging on by a thread, without really even knowing it!

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How to manage stress

A key component to ongoing self-care is to have outlets for healthy stress release. This can take a variety of forms. One fundamental prerequisite to being able to even engage in outlets for stress release is to have boundaries in place such that you have protected time to engage with these outlets, whatever they may be for you.

Outlets for Stress Release

Here is a list of simple, accessible ways to release stress:

How do these things help?

Mind and body are connected through our neuroendocrine system (our spinal cord with associated nerves as well as our hormones and neurotransmitters). Further to this, an estimated 60 to 90 percent of all healthcare related visits are stress related! So the impact that daily relaxation activities can have on your health is tremendous.

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The Autonomic Nervous System

In particular, there is one part of our nervous system called the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) that is especially important. It is part of our nervous system that we do not have conscious control over and is fairly automatic.

Within the ANS there are two major divisions:
1) The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) also known as the “Fight, flight, freeze” part of the nervous system that is strongly activated when we are feeling stressed/overwhelmed/anxious/sense danger.
2) The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) also known as the “Rest, and digest” or calming part of the nervous system that is more active when we feel content/calm/relaxed/at ease.

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Interestingly, we are able to influence the balance between how active the ANS and PNS are by stimulating our Vagus nerve. By doing so, we are able to induce a state of relaxation that helps unwind the harmful effects of chronic stress on our mind and body. A particularly potent way to do this is by breathing exercises which engage our diaphragm (the muscle that helps allow our lungs to expand and contract when we inhale and exhale), which is strongly connected to the Vagus nerve (the main nerve of the PNS).

How often is best to do these activities?

Start off with doing what you can, when you can. Starting with even 5-10 minutes one to two times per week is a great start. Ultimately the best benefit is achieved through consistent, daily practice to help unwind the harm of chronic stress you are already carrying around with you, but to also help proactively de-stress on an ongoing basis.

It’s also important to keep in mind that if you only turn to these outlets when you are feeling overwhelmed (at an 11/10 with emotional distress for example), you might find it difficult to experience any benefit. It is with regular practice that we are best able to experience the beneficial effects and in doing so prevent ourselves from getting to a place of feeling overwhelmed. Further to this, the stress release skills become more familiar and experiencing states of relaxation or inner calm become more readily accessible to us.

Closing thoughts

Try out a few different things, see what you enjoy and what works for you and the more consistent you are and proactive in helping reduce the effects of stress on your body and mind on an ongoing basis, the greater the benefits you will be able to experience. Consider these daily self-care activities similar to making regular deposits into your emotional bank account.

Over time you will be able to see the psychological and emotional benefits, similar to how your savings grow over time with regular deposits and compounding interest. With consistent, daily practice of self-care activities that help invoke a relaxation response and unwind the chronic stress that has accumulated, you will be able to experience the difference.

Happy relaxing!