An almost inevitable part of daily life is stress. Frequent struggles with work life, school life, family issues, financial issues, and general fears about the outcomes of the future feed the frequent uncertainty that we feel when problems become a little too much to handle.
Your body has a way of dealing with situations where you need to act quickly and come up with a solution to a problem, or escape a dangerous environment. In this regard, a certain amount of stress is “normal”, and your body is prepared to handle it. But when stress becomes a constant presence in your life its effects are destructive both for your mind and for your body.
How Your Body Reacts to Stress
The more you learn about your body, the easier it is to understand and handle physical and mental changes when they occur. The same is true with stress and anxiety.
The Central Nervous System (CNS) is in charge of rapid action in unexpected, dangerous situations. Consisting of the brain and the spinal cord, the CNS needs to make a “fight or flight” choice when you are faced with a threatening situation.
In the central part of your brain lies a group of small nuclei called the Hypothalamus. Although it has a variety of functions in the nervous system, the Hypothalamus is like a “panic button” in the “fight or flight” response. It starts by triggering the adrenal glands above your kidneys to release the stress hormones adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine.
Adrenaline - Because it is primarily connected to the receptor of the heart and blood vessels, once triggered, it increases your heart rate, speeds up breathing, and contracts muscles. More importantly, it provides you with a sudden burst of energy which you can use to escape, if needed.
Norepinephrine - Similarly to adrenaline, this hormone also increases your sense of awareness and energy levels. However, it does so by controlling your blood flow, and shifting it to areas that need it most in a stressful situation, such as your muscles. Additionally, it also pauses the work of your bladder and gastrointestinal system.
Cortisol - A member of the steroid hormones, it increases the levels of glucose and makes it easily available for muscle use. It also temporarily stops other processes from working, such as the reproductive system, digestion, the immune system, and even growth.
The fascinating combination of all the elements that create the “fight or flight” response can be life-saving, and are a unique defence mechanism in your body. Although you may feel that some of these effects are extreme, a pounding heart, quick breaths, sweating and shaking, all of them combined give you a superhero boost to deal with danger - for a short period of time.
In a normal stream of events, once the danger has passed, the hypothalamus calls an “all clear” and your system slowly returns to its normal state. Depending on the level of danger that you were in, it may take a few hours or a couple of days to completely overcome the sudden stress. However, if levels of these hormones do not decrease in your system, you are left with a constant, often unrealistic feeling of anxiety, as if something bad is about to happen at any moment.
A Life with Chronic Stress
From what you’ve already read, you’ve probably noticed that there are a number of changes caused by stress hormones that don’t sound pleasing in the long run. If the stress hormones remain at high levels, what is initially only a temporary pause in bodily functions, now turns into a prolonged period of system failure.
Increased blood pressure
Although not the only cause of high blood pressure, a constant presence of stress hormones narrows your blood vessels and increases heart rate. While this is helpful in the “fight or flight” response, it is unnecessary in daily life, and results in a constant strain on your heart. A long period of this can lead to heart disease.
Suppression of the immune system
The importance of the immune system is essential for a healthy life. If your immune system is being suppressed by stress hormones, it makes you more vulnerable to foreign bacteria and viral illnesses, and increases the healing time for injuries.
When you are under constant stress, your libido drops. In men, high levels of stress hormones cause a decrease in testosterone levels, and with it, interfere with normal sperm production. For women, they affect the menstrual cycle and interfere with fertility.
Overeating/Not eating enough
Because stress hormones thwart your digestion, they also confuse your sense of hunger. As a result, people’s bodies react to this in one of two ways.
Some will seek food in unrealistic feelings of hunger and also for emotional support. Unfortunately, they do not reach for healthy food, but instead look for comfort food such as fast food and refined sugar in a hope that it will make them happier. What they end up doing is even worse because now the body has to deal with toxins and digest food that has no nutritional value on top of its already stressful state.
Other people experience the opposite effect and cannot eat properly, which also stops the body from receiving the right nutrients for normal function, and causes it to dip into its energy savings from the glycogen in your liver and muscles.
When you don’t feel well, you don’t feel like doing anything, and unless there are people around you who will try to help, you may be left to your own devices. The longer the feeling of stress continues, the harder it is to push yourself to make a change and do something active. What often follows are episodes of depression and hopelessness.
A good night’s sleep is essential for your body. Stress doesn’t allow your body to relax at any moment, and so both falling asleep and maintaining deep sleep becomes nearly impossible. Muscles that are tense due to high stress hormone levels cannot simply relax on their own. Additionally, your mind cannot relax either because it continues to come up with potential scenarios of danger, even if there aren’t any.
The Role of Fitness in Stress Reduction
How to Reduce Stress?
Certainly not an easy endeavour. Telling someone to relax, or just take a deep breath for the stress to “go away” undermines the complexity of our bodies and all the body functions that need to be handled before you are able to calm down.
In serious cases, medicine may be prescribed to treat the issue. However, in the same way that your body is able to defend itself, it is also able to use your lifestyle to heal itself, and the essence of a “fit life” plays a crucial role.
Healthy Eating Comes Naturally
Even the greatest fitness experts have awful days, and they are also not pardoned from cravings, or even “hanger”. However, because they are so used to eating a specific diet of healthy foods, they are far more likely to reach for foods that are still nutritious. On the other hand, if they are the type to lose their appetite in stressful situations, because their body has been fed whole foods full of essential vitamins and minerals for a long time, and is properly hydrated, their bodies are better adapted to deal with a lack of food.
A Daily Exercise Routine
Exercise helps “relieve” the body of stress hormones, and in turn increases endorphins, which help decrease pain and elevate your mood. People who have a good exercise routine are able to handle stress and anxiety to a great extent simply because their way of life encourages them to do so. Instead of staying indoors, they have an urge to go outside and do something active.
This is why a healthy lifestyle should be your goal in life. Most people focus only on the physical appearance of fitness, but it has so many benefits inside your body that are even more important. If you lead a poor lifestyle you cannot expect your body to be ready to react in time, or to defend itself. Focus on making the healthiest choices for your body now, so that you can rely on it in when you need it most.