In our fast-paced society, infinite knowledge is at our fingertips and experiences, near and far, are a click away. We are taught to be relentless in the pursuit of success, to spend quality time with everyone we know, to exercise five to seven times a week, to eat all the superfoods, and to only eat home-cooked meals. Go, go, go! Our society doesn’t value the importance of slowing down, nor does it teach us ways to manage stress or give us space in our professional careers to take a break. This article will explore the effects stress has on the body, the link between stress and digestive issues and tools to manage stress.
Stress, in the context of this article, is a “state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.” This can be caused by the external environment, pain, lack of sleep, medications, and other factors like foods, skipping meals, exercise, imbalanced gut microbiome, and over-consumption of coffee.
How Does Stress Impact the Body?
Chronic stress is one of the most toxic creations of the modern-day lifestyle. Stress, in moderation, is not as bad since it allows us to be in touch with our animalistic instincts to run from danger, harness energy when it’s most needed, and heal our bodies. Problems arise when the environment becomes a source of chronic stress. Stress is a physiological, hormone-regulated response to our environment, and it goes like this: brain perceives a threat, heart rate elevates, adrenaline and cortisol are released, body responds by moving away from threat and begins to stabilize, and hormone levels return to normal.
When the environment is constantly stressful, hormones are produced continually, leading to imbalance. Diabetes, obesity, heart disease and Alzheimer's are considered lifestyle diseases that can be exacerbated by constant stress. Genetics also play a large role in the expression of disease. However, science found that genetics play a smaller role than previously thought, and environment is the factor that turns these genes on and off. If you bathe your genes in an environment full of cortisol, they will do what they do best and express themselves to their fullest!
Often referred to as our second brain, the gut is alive and sending signals to the brain continually through billions of bacterial cells. Did you know that the human body has more bacterial DNA than human DNA? The brain can perceive a stressor and create a hormonal response, with cortisol, that causes stress, or the gut can initiate a stress-related response through bacterial communication. It can be challenging to distinguish the root cause of stress. Does it start in the brain or does it start in the gut? In my private practice, the clients with the highest levels of stress usually have the worst digestive symptoms and higher levels of anxiety. Stress and digestive issues go hand-in-hand. Acid reflux, diarrhea, bloating and constipation can all be linked to high levels of stress.
With constant communication between the brain and gut, when stress is high, the mind has a hard time focusing on anything other than the task at hand. A study completed at Oxford University showed how stress impacts decision making. Participants were divided into two groups: one group was given a two digit number to memorize and the other group was given a seven digit number. They were then offered chocolate cake or fruit before they had to walk down a hall and recite their memorized numbers. The group that had to remember the seven digit number chose chocolate cake 63 percent of the time while the two digit number group chose cake 41 percent of the time.
Tools to Manage Stress
Recognize the importance of slowing down. While it may not sound as sexy, taking a break, giving yourself some space and breathing deeply can have a huge impact on overall health. Here are some ways to manage your stress and balance your body:
Meditation – There are some great apps out there that provide guided meditations, challenges or just some good old fashioned quiet time. Right now, I currently love Insight Timer and Headspace!
Sleep Hygiene – Take an hour before you go to bed and make that time sacred. Use it to unwind, to put down the phone, turn on a diffuser, and take a bath, breathe, stretch or write in a journal. Staring at your phone or computer late into the night impacts circadian rhythm and the natural response your body has to bedtime.
Lead with Love – Smiling at someone, buying a meal for a friend or someone in need, or just being kind can change your entire mood. The world is bigger than the stress in your mind, so reminding yourself how far kindness goes can directly impact your feelings.
Moving Meditation – It can be hard to quiet the mind, especially when the world demands so much on a daily basis. Movement can actually help calm and clear the mind. Running has often been described as meditative, coloring helps calm the mind and yoga is, in practice, a moving meditation.
Breathe Deeply – Taking deep breathes can change your entire mood. Start by inhaling deeply while counting to eight, hold for eight seconds and then exhale while counting to eight. Your body will immediately relax and your mood will shift.
Stress not only feels uncomfortable, but it kicks off a potentially dangerous physiological response. The key to living a healthy lifestyle is to manage stress so that your brain has the space to focus on being present. Think about different stress management tools you have in your toolbox or add in some new ones and don’t be afraid to use them. Challenge yourself to set aside 10 minutes each day to slow down and de-stress.