Lifeline Connections

The Negative Effects of Stress and Why It’s Important to Relax

When it comes to health, most of us tend to focus on only two major components: Diet and Exercise. And although both of these are incredibly important to maintaining good health, both physically and mentally, there is one integral component to staying healthy that gets little attention: Managing Stress.

In everyday parlance, the word ‘stress’ almost always carries a negative connotation; but stress is actually a very useful and natural evolved response which was designed to alert us to dangerous or potentially harmful situations. When we encounter or perceive a threat, our adrenal glands pump out the hormones epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol. These hormones work in concert to stimulate the heart and increase blood pressure. Certain blood vessels are then constricted to maximize blood flow to your muscles and brain to prepare your mind and body to stand and fight or run away.

This fight-or-flight response came in very handy in prehistoric times when we weren’t necessarily at the top of the food chain. Nowadays, the need to run from large predators and the like is almost unimaginable; and yet, our bodies still respond at the fight-or-flight level to all manner of cues on a daily basis. From trying to meet deadlines at work, to worrying about money, or managing your kids’ schedules – all coupled with a less-than-ideal diet – our bodies are being exposed to high levels of stress more consistently and more often than they were when we might actually have been another critter’s dinner. While our reasoning minds may know it, our bodies have a difficult time differentiating between an argument with a boss and an encounter with a saber-toothed tiger. Thus, we’re left in a perpetual state of stress in preparation for a life-or-death battle that never actually comes.

Continuously being in this state can wreak havoc on our immune systems as well as our psychological and emotional health. A compromised immune system, in turn, can lead to several stress-related diseases and symptoms. Some examples are: allergies, asthma, cancer, depression, eczema, digestive issues, high blood pressure, nutritional deficiencies, sexual problems and weight changes.

There are various ways to manage stress levels, but a simple place to start is with breathing exercises – a.k.a. meditation. Meditating has been demonstrated to strengthen the immune system, lower blood pressure and help people respond to stressful events more positively and effectively. Incorporating meditation into your daily routine doesn’t have to be another daunting task; it could be for as little as 5-10 minutes, 3 times a week.

Exercise is also a very crucial component to supporting your stress levels, as is a healthy diet. Many of us might not know that what we eat for breakfast could be contributing to our sustained cortisol levels. Remember, cortisol is one of the hormones released during stressful events; but its bodily function isn’t only stress-related. Cortisol is highest in the morning when you wake up. As the day goes on, it should start to taper off as melatonin, the hormone responsible for our sleep and wake cycle, begins rising. This is how it should look in a healthy individual. But for many people, cortisol levels remain elevated throughout the entire day, which can be harmful. Again, continuous stress within the body can cause disease and unwarranted symptoms that disrupt our total well-being. A simple fix to keep your cortisol levels normal is to eat a breakfast high in protein, ideally between 25-30 grams.

In this day and age, some stress is unavoidable, but that is not to say it can’t be managed with some of the aforementioned tips. Just keep in mind that in order to maintain your health, it is absolutely crucial to manage your stress levels and, more importantly, to realize that stress is not necessarily caused by the situations themselves, but rather, how we react to those situations.

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