We tend to think of stress as a mental health phenomenon, but stress affects both our brain and and our body. In fact chronic stress can affect most systems in the body.
Stress often begins in our brain. While stress can also occur when we have an unusual assault to our body, for the purpose of this article we will be talking about how the brain modulates stress and affects your overall health.
The role of the brain in our stress response.
When stress occurs, let’s say a chronic worry about a situation in your life, it can upset the balance in your brain and body. The central nervous system (CNS) maintains the “fight or flight” response which can protect us from threats. When a threat occurs it starts the ball rolling by sending distress messages to the adrenal glands which then pump out adrenaline and cortisol to the body which tell us to fight or flee.
This is great if we meet up with a tiger or are trying to escape a burning building giving us the power and resolve we need to deal with that situation. But for the most part we are not presented with these types of threats. More commonly we are faced with stress related to traffic, the washing machine breaking down, or relationship strain.
The body responds the same regardless the stressor.
The body doesn’t discriminate between the types of threats and jumps to action in the same way whether it is a tiger attack or a washing machine break down. These hormones (adrenaline and cortisone) impact all parts of the body causing all kinds of symptoms such as insomnia, upset stomach, increased blood pressure, constipation, diarrhea, loss of sex drive, impotence to name a few. Healthline has a great article you can read more about each body system here.
These symptoms left unattended can snowball creating a lot more stress for you. Take a moment to consider what tends to happen for you.
So what can we do?
The first step is to notice what is happening. Most of us aren’t dealing with a lot of life and death stressors. Much of the time we stress ourselves out because of the story we tell ourselves about what is happening. And often we are inaccurate in our assessments.
Assess the situation
Taking time to stop, look, and assess what is going on in your life. And notice what symptoms are occurring for you. Are you a person with chronic headaches? Do you get diarrhea or constipation when you have a big event coming up? The symptoms will be different for each of us, but we can approach them similarly.
It’s often helpful to ask yourself: What am I stressed about?
Once you have the answer you can ask yourself progressive questions about that. Such as:
- Why does this stress me?
- What do I imagine will happen if this stressful thing continues?
- What part of it is within my control?
- What one piece if changed would alleviate some of the stress?
- What can I do right now that can help me feel better?
It can be revealing how much we can worry over things we have little to now control over OR which take up so little of our life story that if we choose to move on from would have much less impact on our lives. You can probably pick out which of those things are true for you. Keeping in mind that for each of us these will be different.
Example of how to move through the process.
Here’s an example from my own life.
I take piano lessons and as such I have a lesson once a week. For my last lesson I was running late. I had lost track of time and left my home much later than usual. My initial thought was “oh crap this is bad” and I started to feel tense in my muscles and was likely driving a little too fast. At the first stop light I was like “great, now I am going to be really late.” And the muscles tensed more.
Using the above questions I worked through the stress.
- I was stressed because “if I am late the teacher will be angry.”
- That part is outside my control.
- I also asked “has the teacher ever been angry with you?”
- “no” “so why are you stressing?”
- Realizing that the teacher has never been angry you is helpful.
- One thing you can do now is take a deep breath and focus on your driving.
And guess what? My muscles relaxed. I was able to focus on driving to the lesson. And on top of all that–I was actually on time, exactly on time. So all that initial distress was for nothing.
So what about stress and the body?
When you start becoming more observant you will be able to address the issues that stress you out. That in turn will start to have a positive effect on your symptoms. In the example above my muscles relaxed when I started to drill down on the stressor of running late. While it will be different for everyone how long it takes to resolve your symptoms many may start to recede almost immediately. Review the posts on sleep and eating if these are in your symptom profile.
How likely are you to use this strategy the next time you notice stress affecting your body?
Leave your answer in the comments. And if you try it swing back and let us know your outcome.