Do you get less than 8 hours of sleep each night? Do you watch TV, work, or drive while eating? Are you currently on a diet that requires you to restrict, or consume more of, certain food groups?
If you said yes to any of the above, there’s a good chance your body is under stress. And since experts estimate that up to 95% of disease is stress-related, it’s time we get our stress under control. Stress isn’t just work deadlines, money troubles, or a spouse that doesn’t “get” you. Stress is anything (mental, emotional, physical) that puts you or your body in a position where it needs to work overtime (mentally, emotionally, physically) to cope with it.
It’s been proven that being educated reduces stress because it reduces uncertainty and provides a sense of control over an outcome. We’re going back to Biology class!
When you’re stressed (mentally, physically, emotionally), your body experiences a ‘stress response’ (aka “fight or flight response”), the classic example of which involves a zebra running from a lion in the jungle. The zebra sees a threat (the lion), he runs from it (because he chooses to flee instead of fight since he knows the lion will likely win the battle), and then assuming he escapes, he eats some grass and then has a nap (because he was hungry and tired from the stress of almost losing his life). This is a normal response to stress.
Just like with the zebra, when you encounter a threat, your brain signals stress hormones to be released, then those hormones cause reactions in your body so you can deal with the stress appropriately. You start breathing faster, your heart rate increases, your blood vessels constrict, pupils dilate, digestion slows, your immune system decreases, reproduction slows, and your muscles and tissues break down into glucose, which you can use for energy to fight or flee from your threat. These are just a few processes that occur, all geared towards the priority, which is to keep you alive.
In the short term, this stress response can work to your advantage. It can help you focus, meet deadlines and in the case of the zebra, it saved his life. But if you’re dealing with stress every single day (which most of us are since we’re exposed to screens, emails, caffeine and deadlines), it means hormones are constantly flooding your body, throwing your blood sugar out of whack, lowering your immune system, raising your blood pressure, and leaving your body susceptible to a host of diseases.
The range of stressors varies, but there are a few in particular that are likely derailing your current wellness program:
Your perception of stress
Studies have shown that your perception of stress can change the physical response you have in your body. One Harvard study showed that one’s interpretation of stress (viewing the stress as beneficial instead of harmful) could influence the shape of one’s blood vessels, which usually constrict during stress. So avoid seeing stress as stressful. Stop overanalyzing. Stop ruminating. Stop creating stress where it doesn’t exist.
When you have an urgent deadline or a difficult colleague or friend, take a few deep breaths, let your body relax, and consider the stress to be something positive, and simply just your body’s amazing way of keeping you alive and well.
Excessive screen time
Your brain and nervous system are already overstimulated because of stress (remember, stress starts in the brain, which is part of the nervous system). Add hours of screen time on phones, laptops and TV’s and you’ve got a nervous system that is headed for a breakdown.
You might think that binge watching Netflix at the end of a busy day is a good idea, but I’d bet if you shut down your electronics at least one hour before bed, you’d notice an improvement in sleep and energy levels almost immediately.
Cutting carbs, eating excessive protein, eliminating fat, or even judging yourself for not having the body or level of health you want are stressors that can sabotage the greatest health efforts. Why? Because when you’re restricting your body of nutrients it needs to optimally function, it gets stressed, just like you would get stressed if you were asked to finish a project but weren’t given all of the tools or time you needed to succeed.
Consider hydration: When you’re dehydrated, your blood becomes thicker, which makes it harder to pump it through your body to all of your tissues and cells. Your body has to work overtime to make basic functions happen, which results in – you guessed it, fatigue.
The bottom line is that although you’re dealing with stressors every single day, and now you might be aware of a few more, every single factor listed above is controllable. By simply shifting the way you think about stress, and making a few lifestyle changes, you can have a positive impact on your health. And when you have power like that, anything is possible.