Are you stressed out? In our fast-paced modern world where we’re always connected and on-the-go, chronic stress is becoming more and more common.
According to the American Psychological Association, “Chronic stress, which means a constant stress experienced over a prolonged period of time, can contribute to long-term problems for heart and blood vessels. The consistent and ongoing increase in heart rate, and the elevated levels of both stress hormones and blood pressure can take a toll on the body.”
Chronic stress is the response to emotional pressure over a prolonged period during which an individual perceives he or she has no control. It involves an endocrine system response that stimulates a release of adrenal hormones including epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol. As you have likely heard, ongoing exposure to these corticosteroids may be the culprit behind some bad outcomes for the human body.
Our innate, physical reaction to ongoing stress can majorly impact our health. The human body’s “flight or fight” response formed hundreds of thousands of years ago, and spurs our endocrine system to give us a surge of energy in the form of corticosteroids. This enables us to complete superhuman acts such as sprinting at top speed to escape a predator or rescuing a loved one pinned under a heavy object in an emergency.
While our ancestors needed this occasional surge of hormones to survive in the wild, today’s stressors are more constant on a day-to-day basis – Heavy traffic! Mounting bills! A childcare crisis! – and so the hormone surges we experience are also more constant. But ongoing influxes of these powerful adrenal hormones can wreak havoc on our bodies.
Chronic stress is a condition in which our bodies react to the constant emotional pressure over a prolonged period of time – about 12 weeks or more – due to issues that we perceive as having no control over. This stress can negatively impact our long-term health because the adrenal hormones released are the ones responsible for the “fight or flight” response upon which our ancestors depended.
On a cellular level, it’s the equivalent of being chased by a hungry saber-toothed tiger for 12 weeks straight without a break to relax and rejuvenate. These hormones increase our heart rate, raise our blood pressure and send blood to our limbs so we can prepare for action. When you can’t breathe, your palms get sweaty and you’re jittery before a first date or a job interview, that’s your stress hormones at work.
When our overall stress level is low and we experience those pre-interview jitters, the body quickly returns to normal after a brief stressful situation. However, with today’s ongoing stressors always at work in our environment, many of us never return to a neutral, non-stressed “normal” state. When our bodies are constantly doused with hormones in response to chronic stress, we maintain fight or flight mode for far longer than is healthy.
Constant stress induces continual cortisol production, and there’s a good reason it’s known as the aging hormone: high cortisol levels are linked to health concerns including:
- Heart disease
- Weight gain
- High blood pressure
- Low energy
- Suppressed immunity
- Increased belly fat
- Reduced libido
- Bone loss
How can you thwart this common culprit that impacts our bodies so negatively? It’s important to achieve a relaxed, neutral state as often as possible each day. While we can’t avoid certain stressors, we can change our reaction to them, adopting a more healthful mindset. Physical activity – even just a 20-minute daily walk — is one of the most important ways to help your body destress and rid itself of toxic hormones. In addition, getting good sleep, meditating or enjoying social events and hobbies where you laugh and share your daily woes is a very positive step toward beating common stress. And of course, a healthy diet helps immensely!
Chronic stress can often be managed through behavioral and lifestyle changes. It’s important to recognize your stressors and learn new ways of reacting to them that lower the stress response in your body.
Some cases can’t be managed through lifestyle changes alone, and may require therapy or other techniques. However, if you’re suffering from the effects of chronic stress, recognize the symptoms and take charge of your health by getting treatment early rather than suffering the negative effects later in life. You’ve probably heard it said before, but it bears repeating: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
In our next blog post, we’ll share simple strategies and stress-busting techniques you can apply in daily life to neutralize stress.