The Devastating Effects of Stress…and How You Can Minimize the Damage
We’ve all experienced stress. We do, after all, live in a very fast modern world. This topic is top of mind for me, as I’m doing my best to stay grounded with a swirl of projects, client needs, and on top of it, wedding planning (!) tugging me in a million directions. I don’t feel overtly over stressed, as thankfully my meditation and yoga practice really helps me manage it all, but I can feel the effects of the especially faster, crazier pace in my body.
Today’s blog is all about stress and how we can manage it, to ward off the damage it can cause as well as side effects, such as sneaky weight gain, fat distribution, and even disease.
Symptoms of Stress
Some of the symptoms of stress include but are not limited to:
- Chest pain
- Appetite trouble (overeating or not able to eat enough)
- Trouble sleeping
- Loss of libido
- Trouble concentrating
Stress Increases Your Appetite
When you’re stressed, what happens? You crave things. And it seems like you keep craving them long after you should be full, right? One study took a look at 59 healthy, pre-menopausal women in two types of situations—one was stressful and one was the control. When cortisol levels were up high as a result of stress, they ate significantly more than they did on the non-stressful days, and they often went for sweets (shocker! :) Sound familiar?? ). Over time, chronic stress or frequent episodes of stress could cause weight gain and toxicity in the body via excessive sugar consumption.
Food is an easy, comforting thing to reach for when we get stressed, and it certainly tastes good for that immediate moment. But it passes so quickly and the stress remains as it was before eating…so therefore you really have to focus on a non-food way of dealing with your stress. More on that below.
It Puts You at Risk for Heart Disease and Related Death
When stress strikes, your heart may pound, your blood pressure may go up, and you may start breathing faster as part of the fight-or-flight response. In most short-term cases, that’s exactly what should happen, and then once that moment ends, everything returns to normal. However, prolonged exposure to a stressful situation (like a job you hate but can’t leave yet or a failing marriage) can increase your risk of dying from a cardiovascular complication because there’s an ongoing strain to the system.
You don’t even need to have cardiovascular issues before the stress hits to have it escalate into something deadly, so it’s important to monitor your stress levels and take precautions to bring them back down when you feel yourself getting frazzled. In a study that looked at people in three age groups, 18-27, 28-47, and 48+, and took into account gender, lifestyle, and other factors that could contribute to cardiovascular disease and related death, the employees under the most stress—mainly the ones who worked extremely hard but felt there was little reward—were much more likely to die from a cardiovascular issue.
Chronic Stress Makes Pre-Existing Problems Worse and Cause You to Pick up Bad Habits
Here’s a way that stress doesn’t even directly affect your body per se, but it could still be indirectly wearing away at your health. The American Psychological Association points out that stressful circumstances could lead to poor lifestyle choices, like smoking, drinking, or consistently overeating. How many people do you know who, in the face of a challenging situation want to press pause for a cigarette break? How many do you know who like to go out for drinks after a stressful work day or pour themselves a drink at home after a long, rough day? Do you know anyone who could inhale almost a whole cake if given the chance because they’re susceptible to just being overcome with stress?
You know the risks—cancer, smoking, heart disease, obesity, diabetes… There are so many diseases that could be linked to stress this way. These habits are available, but sometimes hard to resist when it feels like the walls are caving in. Stay strong and do something to help your health. You’ll get the same calming benefits and the satisfaction of knowing you did something you don’t need to feel guilty about. For instance, going for a walk/hike with a friend or taking a yoga class can really help destress you rather than heading to the local bar (again). If this is your habit and this is what you do with your friends/coworkers, start a new trend and make a focus of changing up your routine.
The (Almost) Direct Link to Cancer
Lots of research has been done over the years regarding stress’ ability to actually cause cancer directly. Nothing conclusive has turned up, but we do know that stress increases inflammation and can lead to bad habits, both of which could make it easier for tumors to grow.
However, some new evidence is showing up that suggests that stress makes it easy for cancer to grow and spread, and in some cases, even halts and reverses treatment progress. A study on breast cancer showed that stress could help morph the anti-tumor inflammatory response that should prevent tumors from growing in the early stages into something that actually helps the tumors grow. With acute and chronic inflammation from stress, certain genes react in an abnormal way and encourage cancer to come in and take over.
Our mind and body are fused, and stress can become a conglomeration of negative thoughts that can manifest into a physical reality, which can be localized (to start) in one particular area in your body where one holds stress or has an energy block.
Stress Makes Fat Stick to Your Abdomen
Feel like you’re putting on weight in your middle? If you are, it may be stress-related. In a study using monkeys, there were four groups: stressed monkeys that exercised, stressed monkeys that were sedentary, non-stressed monkeys that exercised, and sedentary monkeys that were not stressed. All ate the same diet. Regardless of physical activity, the stressed monkeys had higher fat deposits around the abdomen area. (No, this isn’t an excuse to cancel your gym membership or skip your evening walks!) Fat around the abdomen particularly has been linked to insulin resistance, cardiovascular disease, and chronic inflammation.
Stress and the Immune System
Ever had a big project, meeting, or interview coming up that you were really stressing over, and then, to top it all off, you got sick? Thank stress for that. Chronic stress takes your normal, happy, functioning immune system down a couple of notches, making it easier to catch whatever is going around at the time. If your body’s reacting to stress, little intruders may be able to sneak by and make you sick.
Ways to Manage Stress
If just looking at the list makes you feel stressed about the damage that being stressed can cause in your body, there are changes you can make to ease the stress even when you don’t have enough control of the stressful situation to change it!
In life, we can’t control everything that comes up or comes at us, but we can control the way we react to things and create a strategy to manage the stress overall.
Get some time to yourself with your thoughts. I don’ t think there is any way to get around this as part of an ongoing stress management. I believe in this world with so many energies coming at you, you need time alone to ground. Apart from even your roommates, spouse and friends. For me that means my daily meditation practice, which I’ve recommended doing before. I consider it the most important thing I do every day, because it makes everything else more efficient and better, besides the profound benefits of it in and of itself.
But it can also mean going for a walk with your iPod, reading a book in a closed room for a while, cooking (if you enjoy it), writing in a journal… The important thing is that you’re doing something you enjoy, no one else is around, and there’s no additional stimulation, like a television or computer screen, music, or the background chatter and noise of a public place. It does help if you try to remember to take deep breaths, even if your sole purpose during those moments isn’t breath work.
Work these moments into your life daily.
You can incorporate yoga into your quiet time, but you don’t have to. You can take a yoga class, follow a DVD, or do it alone. It’s totally up to you. Yoga helps you get in tune with your breath, your body, and you’re focusing on the poses and movements so much, all your stress melts away. The best part is, you carry that less-stressed feeling with you for the rest of the day; the stress doesn’t come swooping in as soon as your teacher says namaste.
I personally can’t do work outs that add more stress, with loud grating music (okay that may sound grandma-ish but it’s how I feel!) and pushy, aggressive people. I’m not a gym person or exercise class person. It’s personally not my scene. To me, yoga has an active element to clear energy, at the same time it really helps to make your mind and body strong. I feel like I’m doing so many different things at the same time when I practice my Vinyasa yoga flow.
If you’re chasing after something—a new way of life, perhaps—just stopping to be thankful for what you do have in your life can shift your perspective and get you out of the go-go-go mode that’s fueled by stress. That doesn’t mean you’ll stop trying to achieve new things, but you’ll remember to stop and smell the roses, so to speak, and have a calmer outlook.
Time with Friends
As much as I love social media, it doesn’t count as time with friends! Face to face interaction with your pals can help you blow off some steam, reset, and have a lasting effect so that stressful events don’t even get to you so much.
Manage Your Stress
You can’t stop stress from happening, though you should take control and discard it where you can, taking care to replace it with more fulfilling parts of life, like friendship and gratitude. Stress can make you sick, but there’s still good news. Even if you can’t get rid of what’s causing it, you can make yourself less susceptible to its effects, mentally, emotionally, and physically.
As always, eat a diet full of Beauty Foods to alkalize your body in order to fight the inflammation stress causes and make it nearly impossible for disease to grow, backed up with digestive probiotics to fortify your body. The act of caring for yourself and giving yourself nourishing foods are important acts of self-love, which in and of themselves are anti-stress.
The yoga, quiet time, time with friends, and gratitude I mentioned above will decrease the likelihood that you’ll feel stressed, even if you can’t change the outside circumstances. Your threshold for stress will simply move higher once you’ve achieved a more balanced life and a slightly different perspective. You’ll have more space so you don’t have to react so quickly and in the same ways that you have in the past.
In love and health,