Time to relax and rejuvenate. Right? So why are we still feeling stressed? Medical science now knows that stress is a contributing factor in virtually all disease.
Ah, the holiday season is finally over. Time to relax and rejuvenate. Right? So why are we still feeling stressed?
First of all, stress may be in our heads, but it is also felt physically in our bodies. Medical science now knows that stress is a contributing factor in virtually all disease. But how are our emotions manifested in a physical reaction?
The Stress Response
When we experience stress, which can be anything from losing a loved one to being tied up in traffic, our brain responds with emotion: fear, anger, hurt, anxiety, or even happy anticipation. The brain downloads the message to release hormones from the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands. The adrenals release adrenaline, creating what is commonly known as the fight-or-flight response.
It would be ridiculous to think that we can live our lives free of stress. In essence short-term stress is a good thing. During the fight-or-flight stage, blood is shifted from the digestive process and rushed to the muscles. The head clears; we’re focused to make a quick decision. If we watch this response in animals, though, we find that once the chase is over, a stage of fatigue and rest ensues. How many of us move through this cycle during our busy lives?
Without rest and relaxation, daily stress becomes long-term stress. Hormones keep pumping; adrenaline levels stay elevated causing heart rates and blood pressure to increase. Triglyceride and blood sugar levels elevate and we rush off to our doctor for a prescription. We then wonder why medication is not helping and we begin a run of drugs, therapies, and supplements. It is somewhat like putting creme on a cut then constantly picking the scab and wondering why it does not heal.
The Body Connection
In his book, Deadly Emotions (Nelson, 2003), Don Colbert, MD, talks at length about the hormone cortisol, which is released into our bodies during stressful episodes. Over time cortisol not only contributes to health problems but also can make the body gain and retain weight, especially around the waist. This may explain why dieting alone often does not help with weight loss. Stress-releasing physical exercise helps the pounds drop.
Dr. Gabor Mate in his book, When the Body Says No (Wiley, 2003), paints a convincing picture showing how repressed anger is often the common factor in many cancers. As a Woody Allen character said, “I never get angry, I grow a tumour instead.”
All is Not Lost
Even in our hectic and busy lives we can easily lower our stress levels. First, we must recognize when we are stressed. Some signs of stress are skin rashes, unexplained weight gain or loss, sleep deprivation, heart palpitations, short-term memory loss, digestive problems, depression, rising blood pressure, and even allergies. Once we learn to recognize stress, we can work to de-stress by practising some of the solutions suggested in the accompanying sidebar. Also try taking a vacation, going to yoga class, or unwinding at the gym–all helpful activities to prevent long-term stress.
When you feel stressed, go ahead and exercise, reach out to friends, be positive, meditate, and, yes, take that holiday. It could save your life!
Ways to Stress Less
- During stressful times, eat a low-fat carbohydrate snack like air-popped popcorn. Carbs trigger the release of the hormone serotonin, producing a calming effect.
- Use aromatherapy. Put a few drops of your favourite essential oil on a handker-chief and waft it under your nose at stressful moments.
- Deep breathe. Inhale to a count of four, hold for four, and exhale for four. As you exhale, force your breath out with a “Ha” sound. You can do this anywhere, at any time, to trigger your body’s relaxation response.
- Laugh and smile to help trigger the relaxation response. Run, don’t walk, to your nearest
playground and watch playing children easily burst into spontaneous laughter.
- Give yourself permission to be human. Setting realistic goals for yourself can greatly de-stress your life.
- Gain perspective on the situation. What impact will being late today have on your life five years from now?
- Avoid using alcohol and drugs to de-stress. They can lead to problems in the long term.