The statement “I’m so stressed” is one that is so commonplace nowadays that we tend to view stress as normal. In a culture focused on achievement and hard work, stress can be seen as honorable, something needed to prove one is striving to achieve. While some stress can be good, as it can motivate us and help us become more resilient in difficult times, the effects of chronic, ongoing stress can be detrimental to our physical and emotional well-being.
Chronic Stress Disorder
Stress occurs when our body reactions to a situation that feels threatening. When our bodies feel threatened, they go into high alert, fluctuating between fight, flight, or freeze mode. “Fight, flight or freeze” is the way one’s body determines how to respond to a threat. When one resides in this way of being, a chronic state of “fight, flight or freeze”, varying symptoms can occur. When this occurs common emotional symptoms include agitation, racing thoughts, constant worrying, forgetfulness, and feeling easily overwhelmed. Physical symptoms may include stomach concerns, headaches, insomnia or sleep difficulties, fatigue, hyper-vigilance, and chronic colds.
The Impact of Prolonged Stress on the Body
When the body feels it may be attacked at any moment, it does not have the opportunity to enter the parasympathetic mode in which our bodies feel calm and at ease. When in the parasympathetic mode, our bodies have the ability to heal and repair. Research shows that chronic stress weakens the immune system leaving us more susceptible to catching colds and other viruses as well as more serious illnesses in the future. Prolonged stress also causes our bodies to hold onto unnecessary weight. When we are stressed, our bodies release the cortisol hormone and over time, this hormone can shut off the body’s ability to determine whether it is hungry or full. This makes us more susceptible to overeating as well as eating unhealthy foods as a way to feel better.
Fatigue is another prominent symptom of chronic stress. Feeling fatigued even with a solid night of sleep (called adrenal fatigue) is a potential warning sign that your body needs a break from constantly being in fight, flight or freeze mode. This adrenal fatigue is a condition typically caused by chronic stress; if your body is running on adrenaline all day, it does not have any additional fuel left to energize you when you get up or fuel to help you get to sleep at night. This body imbalance often causes one to feel energized at night and fatigued during the day.
Strategies for Reducing Chronic Stress:
1. Use Mindfulness Exercises
Mindfulness allows you to focus on the present moment whether this is for a few moments or several minutes. Mindfulness activities include meditation, deep breathing, or even taking a walk. Mindfulness for a few moments each day, focusing on your body or other surroundings can improve overall health and re-set your nervous system.
2. Try Calming Workouts
Cardio workouts are good ways to blow off steam at times. However, when your body is constantly in a state of fight, flight or freeze, cardio can exacerbate stress. Yoga, pilates, dance, or a walk can be helpful when the nervous system is already overwhelmed by chronic stress.
3. Diet Additions
Research shows various herbs added to one’s diet can reduce stress and decrease inflammation in the body including Rhodiola, Lemon Balm, and Ashwagandha.
Speaking to someone about stress and anxiety is a huge stress reliever. Often we feel alone and isolated when stressed in the first place! Talk to a friend, loved one or even a therapist, who can help to alleviate symptoms. While the idea of chronic stress can be scary as it impacts our bodies and minds greatly, consider symptoms as a way to identify when it’s time to take a break and engage in some favorite self-care activities.