How does stress affect my health?
by Alysia B Chick
Our nervous system
In our modern world, we are constantly on the go and we glorify being busy and having huge to-do lists. Whilst this may help us to feel ‘successful’, ultimately it’s very damaging to both our health and state of mind. Living in a constant state of stress impacts almost every body system, and can leave us with any of the following symptoms:
- Poor quality sleep
- Weight gain and ill-fitting clothes
- Increased or decreased hunger signals
- Food cravings, usually sweet or salty
- Energy fluctuations
- Poor moods
- Bloating and digestive upsets
- and so much more
To better understand this, we need to first have an understanding of how the nervous system works. From here we can then see the impact that our daily choices have on both our nervous system and our health.
Autonomic nervous system
Our nervous system is impacted by every choice we make, right down to what we choose to eat and how we choose to move our body. Our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) runs unconsciously and regulates things like our breathing, heart rate, immunity, hormones, healing, digestion etc. We are going to have a look at how the sympathetic (SNS) and parasympathetic (PNS) portions of our ANS interact, how these are affected by stress and what we can do to manage this.
Sympathetic nervous system
This part of our nervous system is referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ portion. Its job is to help us fight whatever is threatening us, and so it does things like;
- raises our heart rate
- releases stress hormones into our blood
- increase our breathing rate
- shuts down digestive and reproductive functions
It does this so that we can better focus on saving ourselves from danger. Once the perceived threat is gone, our PNS is supposed to kick in and bring us back to equilibrium. However, the problem we have today is that our perceived threats don’t go away. Our SNS is activated today by the constant checking of social media, work pressures, family pressures, financial pressures, daily caffeine consumption, high-intensity exercise etc.
Parasympathetic nervous system
The PNS is the ‘rest and digest’ part of our nervous system. It balances the SNS by decreasing heart rate and breathing, releasing relaxation hormones, allowing digestion to occur and aiding us to get good quality sleep. It perfectly counterbalances the SNS if allowed to, however unfortunately many people live in a constant state of SNS dominance.
Living in this SNS dominant state leaves the body open to developing many health issues, such as weight gain, glucose intolerance, insomnia, high inflammation, fluctuating moods, loss of libido and hormonal issues just to name a few.
How to manage stress and increase your health
The aim of managing your stress in a healthy way is to allow your body to move easily between the SNS and PNS, allowing rest, repair and rejuvenation to occur. In order to get to this place, SNS stimulation needs to be decreased. This can be done in the following ways:
- Removing caffeine from your diet for some time. Caffeine increases the production of stress hormones in your body, which increases SNS activation and the stress response.
- Identify the sources of your stress. Writing them down or talking about them will you help you gain clarity. Keeping a journal is a great way to understand what is causing you stress, and to start dealing with it in a healthy way.
- Begin a daily meditation practice to still your mind. Start out small with short guided meditations which you can find on youtube. Meditation is a beautiful, simple way to reduce tension in your mind and stress in your body.
- Start to practice a gentle daily form of exercise such as yoga, walking or tai chi. These types of exercise require slow conscious breathing and allow your body to relax whilst also giving it the benefits of movement.
- Conscious relaxation. Progressive muscle relaxations are excellent for decreasing SNS dominance, and you can also find these on youtube very easily.
You also need to activate your PNS, which can be done via your breath.
How to breathe for stress management
Practicing deep, diaphragmatic belly breathes is highly beneficial to everyone, as it has a very powerful effect on your biochemistry, your ability to produce energy, and your bodies relaxation response.
Here is a short guide to breathing efficiently:
- Sit quietly and comfortably
- Place your hands down low on your belly and take a long slow breath in through your nostrils.
- Send this breath down into your belly, and allow it to gently push your hands forward. It is important that you feel your hands move, as this signals that you are using your diaphragm to breathe.
- Pause here for just 1 or 2 seconds, and then slowly exhale your breath back out through your nose. You will feel your belly move back in towards your spine.
- Pause here again for 1 or 2 seconds.
- Repeat this 10 times, for 10 slow deep breathes.
Practice this every day, when you wake up in the morning and when you go to bed at night. You can also do 2 or 3 of these breaths during the day if you feel yourself tensing up or getting stressed. Breathing in this way really allows your nervous system to slow down, and gives your body a chance to rest and recalibrate.
Our nervous system is responsible for many unconscious bodily functions that we take for granted, such as breathing, digesting and sleeping. The two portions of our autonomic nervous system, the SNS and PNS, have opposing and balancing actions. The SNS is the fight or flight response, ramping everything up and keeping the body in overdrive, and the PNS allows the body to slow back down, rest, digest and create equilibrium again. Issues occur when the body is constantly in the SNS on state, and this is when we have symptoms such as insomnia, hormonal problems, mood fluctuations, weight gain etc. Creating a healthy stress response allows your body to easily move between these ‘fight or flight’ and ‘rest and repair’ states. Daily practices of conscious deep breathing, gentle exercises such as yoga and tai chi, meditation & contemplation and reduced caffeine intake will help to get you there.