Stress is something we know all too well. It affects everyone and is part of our daily modern lives. Stress from financial concerns, pressure to perform at work, dealing with problems at home so much more; stress is everywhere and the list of stressful things we have to deal with can seem overwhelming some days.
Let’s take a look at what we can do to help our bodies recover from the damage effects of stress to support our immune system and create an environment that is ripe for healing.
Not all Stress is Bad Stress: Acute Stress vs. Chronic Stress
It is common to believe that all stress is bad, but that isn’t the case. Our bodies are capable of handling many of the stressful events we experience in our lives. In fact, we can actually thrive from these encounters in small doses. These short-term, acute events trigger our bodies to release chemicals that help rebuild cells and enhance immunity, leaving us stronger and healthier than before the stressful incident. It is sort of like weight training, we lift heavy objects to build our muscles and become stronger from it.
In addition, this type of good stress can give us the ability to focus, enhance performance and even motivate us during times we need it most. The key is that good stress is short-term and doesn’t take a heavy toll on your body since the body has a chance to recover from the stress.
For example, when a car pulls out in front of you and automatically responds by quickly hitting the brakes to avoid a collision. Your body experiences a prompt physical reaction – including a rapid heartbeat and a rush of inflammatory hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Your body’s immediate reaction to this sudden event helps you quickly respond to the emergency – and then within a short period, your body recovers and returns to its normal “rest and digest” state, carried out by the autonomic nervous system, once the crisis has ended.
However, long-term or chronic stress is a different story since it has longer-lasting and more damaging effects that can lead to ongoing health problems and worsen existing conditions. It creates a constant strain on the body that can contribute to serious health concerns including the six leading causes of death in the United States: cancer, coronary heart disease, accidental injuries, respiratory disorders, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide. Chronic stress surpasses our physical and mental ability to cope with a stressor and return to that rested, relaxed state where healing can occur. The immune system stays activated so the body never gets the message the crisis has ended and it is out of danger. As a result, the body gets stuck in a state of high alert, called the “fight or flight” mode, which is carried out by the sympathetic nervous system.
While chronic stress causes health problems on its own, it can also worsen lifestyle problems we already have such as how well we are sleeping and eating. It can also impact our relationships with others and our interest in making time for a walk or taking a yoga class. Because being in a chronic state of stress makes it even more difficult to make positive lifestyle choices necessary to recover from illnesses and chronic diseases, it is essential to find ways to help the body recover from the damaging effects of stress. While it is not realistic to eliminate stress from our lives entirely, you will see there are many stress-reducing tools and techniques that you can use to help stay in a more relaxed healing state regardless of what life throws your way! So let’s take a look at some simple changes you can leverage to help you start to get a better handle on stress today.
Step 1: Identify Areas of Stress
One powerful way to manage the harmful impact of stress is to identify where the stress in your life is coming from. Write out a list of the sources of stress in your life and consider what you can do to remove or reduce your exposure to them. Of course, there may be some things you change immediately – such as a demanding job or a stressful relationship.
In these cases, look for ways you can change your perspective. Can you change the way you internalize these stressors in your life so it is less toxic to your health? Strategies such as keeping a gratitude list, staying present to live in the moment and deciding to let go of troublesome events are a few ways to help your body shift from a stressful state to a more restful one.
Step 2: Just Breathe
The act of simply taking slow deep breaths can calm stress in a matter of moments. It is an easy, accessible practice that can help to support relaxation by activating the parasympathetic nervous system to decrease stress and return your body to a healing state. It is easy to do and only takes a few minutes. Here is one very effective deep breathing exercise you can try with me right now called 4-7-8 breathing:
Simply inhale through your nose for 4 counts, hold your breath for 7 counts, and then exhale slowly for 8 counts. Let’s do this again. Inhale for 4 counts, hold for seven counts and exhale for 8 counts. Repeat this cycle 4 times and feel the stress melt away. You can work your way up to 8 cycles if you like. You might be surprised at how relaxed this short exercise can make you feel. It is also helpful when trying to go to sleep so give it a try if you need it at bedtime, too.
Step 3: Try Meditation
Studies have shown that spending 5-10 minutes can improve productivity for the day, and meditating twice a day can lower blood pressure by 5 points. Meditation can be as simple as sitting in a quiet room and listening to a meditation app like Headspace, Calm or Insight Timer.
I used to think that meditation was something I could never do since my mind is very active, but after realizing the benefits for my health I made a habit to meditate every day. I started with one or two minutes and worked up from there. My suggestion to you is just to start somewhere. Even a few minutes of meditation delivers great health benefits and it does get easier with practice!
Step 4: Connecting with Others
Sometimes simply talking about issues that are causing stress in our lives can help. Reaching out to your support system – such as your family, friends and physician, and talking about your struggles and challenges can help reduce your stress level. I hope that this video has helped you to identify good stress from bad stress, understand the damaging effects of chronic stress and to be inspired to make an effort to reduce chronic stress in your life as much as possible by adding stress reduction practices in your daily life. Fortunately, these stress-reducing techniques don’t require a lot of time or effort to get significant health benefits, but like all healthy lifestyle changes, they require some practice to create a lifestyle habit. So, why not pick one thing that appeals to you and start there? Set aside some time each day to be intentional about relaxing and enjoying yourself.
We can’t eliminate stress from life but you have powerful tools you can use to support your body from the negative effects of stress. By doing so, you can lower the levels of stress hormones to support your immune system and prime your body for optional health and healing.