Life is getting busy – new routines, changing seasons and extracurricular activities are picking up.
A lot of women feel overwhelmed this time of year, too, which means more pressure and stress…and I know that some of you feel like you should be able to just “push through it”.
Unfortunately, that’s NOT the best approach!
Stress isn’t all just “in your mind” – it’s also in your body! I mean, any time you feel or think about stress, your physical body reacts. This response is normal – it’s hard-wired into your system as a primal reaction to stress to keep you safe and alive.
Stress as a Good Thing
When your ancestors were under threat – whether it was fighting off a saber-toothed tiger or dealing with everyday problems like finding enough food to eat – their bodies triggered the stress response. In turn, cortisol (your main stress hormone) was released to provide energy (aka glucose) to get their muscles pumping or their organs energized.
And, some stress in our lives is good for us too. Too little and we feel bored and depressed. No one wants that, right?
What’s Going On Now?
Our culture has changed a lot since then, but our body’s wiring hasn’t. We react to stress the same way, except our stressors don’t require us to outrun a tiger or worry about where our next meal is coming from.
And that can have a major impact on your health and your weight!
I want to walk you through what happens to your body during a typical stressful situation. Hang in there with me, because it’s pretty eye-opening.
Let’s pretend you have an interview for a potentially life-changing job at 8 a.m. next Tuesday.
You really want this job, so you spend a lot of time researching and preparing.
But then Tuesday morning you wake up and look at your clock, and your eyes see that it’s 7:15 a.m. Your alarm didn’t go off!
Your Body Stressed
Here’s what happens in your body:
- Your eyes send that information to your brain’s amygdala, which helps you interpret what you see and hear.
- Your amygdala basically says, “What the #@*&!!!!?”
- It sends a distress call to your brain’s command center, your hypothalamus, which talks to the rest of your body through your autonomic nervous system. (This system handles all of your involuntary functions, like the beating of your heart, your breathing, and your blood pressure. It works in two parts – the “sympathetic,” which is like a gas pedal, flooding your body with fuel to outpace danger, and “parasympathetic,” which is like a brake, calming things down after danger passes.)
- As soon as your hypothalamus hears the distress call, it flips on the sympathetic nervous system, telling your adrenal glands to release epinephrine (aka adrenaline) into your bloodstream. This is basically your body’s “GO!” juice.
- Your heart beats faster, sending blood to your muscles and other organs. Your airways open wide as your breathing speeds up, allowing more oxygen into your system. Some of that extra oxygen goes to your brain, sharpening your senses and making you more alert.
- To power all that action, the epinephrine also prompts your body to release fuel, in the form of extra blood sugar and stored fat.
- All of that happens lightning-fast, before you even have a chance to fully register that your alarm didn’t go off! Your body does this to either give you the fuel you need to run away fast … or go to battle.
- Which is exactly what you do, by jumping out of bed and springing to action. You have a LOT to do in a short period of time, and so much is riding on this interview!
- Your body kicks on its second stress-response layer, your HPA axis, which consists of your hypothalamus, your pituitary gland, and your adrenal glands.
- Your adrenal glands dump cortisol (and more fuel) into your system, to keep your accelerator on until the stress passes.
- When you finally hop into your car, you relax a little, triggering your parasympathetic system, which puts the brakes on your stress response so you can start to relax.
- But at the interview (which somehow, miraculously, you arrive at on-time!), your sympathetic response kicks back on, keeping you sharp so you can nail the interview.
- On the drive back home, your cortisol levels dip back down, once again triggering your parasympathetic “recovery” system.
- As your blood sugar levels dip because your body releases insulin to gobble it up from your system, you feel yourself becoming hungry and tired, or maybe even “hangry” until you can get something to eat.
- If this is an isolated issue, you’ll go on your way, having a normal day.
- But if this is just the latest thing to happen in a series of stressful events – or if you never learned stress-management techniques – your body might not know how to put on your anti-stress brake.
What This Does to Long-Term Health
Over time, this constant revving of your sympathetic nervous system can lead to health problems that can damage your blood vessels, cause high blood pressure and increase your risk of stroke or heart attack!
You can gain weight in the form of BODY FAT. Having chronically high levels of the stress hormone cortisol can 1) make you hungry and 2) increase fat storage. That can contribute to weight gain and the buildup of fatty tissues.
It can make it HARD TO SLEEP.Besides the fact that being stressed can keep you awake at night, when your cortisol levels are out of whack, it can make your body want to stay up at night and sleep during the day (which causes an even bigger hormonal disruption, affecting your hunger hormones).
You can feel aches, pains, and headaches.When you’re stressed, your muscles tighten up. Over time, this can cause things like migraines and low-back pain – and even set the stage for injury!
It can hurt your heart.Repeatedly high stress hormone levels, elevated heart rate and blood pressure can increase the risk for hypertension, heart attack or stroke.
Your immune system takes a big hit.Over time, communication between your body’s stress response centers and your immune system becomes disrupted. This has been linked to the development of chronic fatigue, depression, immune disorders, diabetes, and obesity.
It’s bad for your gut.It disrupts the workings of your digestive system – not just from the extra hormones floating around your body, but also by impacting your appetite. This can lead to acid reflux, bloating, nausea, pain, and even diarrhea or constipation.
Even your sex life can take a dive.Stress can dampen libido, disrupt menstrual cycles, and affect your fertility.
This is why it’s SO IMPORTANT to make time destress.
Your body is wired to handle short-term stress to get out of a jam. But it’s not set up to handle being “go-go-go” 24/7!
Learning how to trigger your body’s parasympathetic (aka “rest & digest”) system is an important part of learning how to de-stress.
Ways to Destress
One of the most important things you can do to help destress is to take short “breathing breaks” during the course of the day where you sit quietly and focus on your breathing. Calming your breathing calms your body!
Here are some other quick and easy practical tips: go outside for a short walk, listen to calming music, take a half-hour technology break, or read (from a real book!). You’ll find yourself relaxing almost immediately.
Taking a few stress breaks during the course of the day isn’t “weak.” It’s actually STRONG, because it helps you take back control.
Working out and eating right also helps your body recover from stress.
Here are some things you can do to destress yourself:
- Exercise regularly! Study after study shows how exercise can increase your body’s “feel-good” hormones and help reduce the stress-causing hormones.
- Create a daily positivity practice,reading or watching inspirational books and videos. This helps create a positive, resilient mindset.
- Engage in hobbies or pastimes that make you feel good. This can include anything from cooking and crafting to making music or rebuilding cars.
- Volunteer or help someone. Your body will release feel good hormones (oxytocin and endorphins) so you aren’t just helping others – you also are helping yourself!
Alright, are you going to do something fun today now?