There are two types of stress. The first type is acute stress. That’s the kind where your body senses danger and adapts to the threat by making physical changes that allow you to quickly get out of danger. This happens because your body secretes chemicals and stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. These chemicals are secreted in response to your thoughts and cause your body to prepare for “fight or flight.” For example, suppose you are crossing the street and notice a car approaching rapidly. You see the car that makes you feel fear and anxiety. Your body then adapts to the stress by secreting chemicals and hormones that send messages to your heart, lungs, and organs to prepare them to handle your crisis. Your heart rate increases, blood flow is diverted to your muscles, allowing rapid movement, your pupils dilate, and more oxygen flows through your lungs for an extra burst of energy. These changes allow you to react quickly, allowing you to jump onto the sidewalk to get to safety. In a short period of time, your body calms down and things return to normal. This protection mechanism is crucial to your safety and is designed to protect you against any danger.
The other type of stress is called chronic stress. With chronic stress, chemicals and hormones that were only meant to be secreted for a short period of time are continually released. The stress response kicks in and never turns off. The glands that secrete these chemicals do not have a chance to replenish or restore themselves to pre-stress levels. Your body remains in a state of hyperarousal and the hormones that are meant to help and protect you are secreted in excess and eventually depleted. It’s like turning on the shower full force and leaving it on. Eventually, you will run out of hot water.
Stress and the immune system are very closely related. Your immune system maintains internal harmony within your body. When it is healthy and strong, it is in a position to fight to protect you against unwanted invasions. One of the greatest dangers of chronic stress is that the excessive secretion of chemicals suppresses the immune system. When this occurs, your body doesn’t have the ability to fight off invaders as effectively, so it has less protection against disease, stress-related conditions, and illness. The immune system is directly affected by how we handle stress. If it is strong, it offers us protection, if it is weak, it is unable to fight for us. (Ever notice how you can get a respiratory infection when you’re under a lot of stress? The stress you were under caused a release of stress hormones that weakened your immune system and couldn’t protect you against the invader.)
Stress hormones and chemicals are released according to the way we think, feel and act. The way we think, feel, and act is based on our ideas, beliefs, value systems, religious upbringing, personality, culture, and past conditioning. All of these variables determine how stress affects us because they create the way we see the world around us. An event can be seen so differently by two people depending on their perspective. For example, have you ever noticed how two people can see the traffic? Once the person can be seen hitting the steering wheel of her, cursing and flooding in a sea of stress-induced hormones. The other person can be seen catching up on phone calls, listening to music, and enjoying some quiet time. It is the same event for both, but the way the event is considered is completely different and is based on the way each interprets the event. While we are all affected by stress differently, the people who are best equipped to manage the stressors in their lives are the ones who enjoy the greatest health and wellness benefits. Their bodies are not continually releasing stress hormones that are causing immune system damage along with other bodily wear and tear.
When these chemicals are constantly secreted, they can also cause stress-induced conditions, illnesses, and ailments over time because they alter the chemistry of your cells while weakening your immune system. When hormones like cortisol become depleted, autoimmune diseases can occur, and conditions like arthritis are common. When levels are abnormal, other problems arise. Sleep quality, skin disorders, infertility, anxiety, and delayed healing are common when stress hormones are out of balance.
Stress also affects the nervous system which is directly related to the digestive system. Have you ever noticed how many feel gassy, bloated, or like they haven’t fully digested when they gobble down lunch? Your body interpreted the stress you were feeling and decided it was more important to prepare for the perceived battle than it was to digest your food effectively. Digestive disorders are so widespread that they are now the biggest complaint in emergency rooms. Conditions like reflux, irritable bowel syndrome, and ulcers are very common and can be related to stress.
If things weren’t bad enough, stress also makes us age faster. This happens when cortisol is secreted in excess, there isn’t enough, and more needs to be produced. Levels are restored by borrowing chemicals from your estrogen stores that are necessary to help retain youth and vitality. Have you ever noticed someone and thought “Wow, that person seems to have had a rough life.” The way they have handled their stress is written on all of them.
Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse, stress can make you overweight too! This is what is happening. When you’re stressed, stress hormones are released and increase your appetite for high-fat, high-calorie foods. Then you eat those foods and those are the foods that encourage the release of stress hormones! It’s a never-ending cycle that leads to excessive stress hormone secretion, weight gain, and frustration. These hormones also stimulate fat storage in the abdominal region, increase the amount of glucose floating around in the blood, and set the stage for insulin resistance, diabetes, high cholesterol, and hypertension. So the stress you interpret encourages you to eat foods that make you heavier, causing more chemicals to be released. If you’re an emotional eater, you’re in even bigger trouble. She has now added eating more as a way to self-medicate to make herself feel better from her stress. You can choose foods high in fat and carbohydrates that give you a boost in serotonin, a feel-good chemical. This lifts you up but then drops you down hard and you are left with less energy than before. At this point, you are left with your original stress, feelings about your eating habits, excess weight, a starting point for illness, and raging stress hormones.
It is important to realize that the stress response was designed to be effective when used for short-term security. Unfortunately, those same chemicals that protect you from immediate danger harm you when they continue to be released. To make matters worse, the body doesn’t know if the stress is real or just imaginary. It will secrete stress hormones, whether you’re grieving the death of a loved one, reacting to your kids driving you crazy, or replaying the pain, hurt, or argument you had with your mother ten years ago.
We often don’t realize how the stress we feel can lead to a physical response. It may be easier to accept that a physical response is due to a physical cause. For example, you stub your toe, you scream in pain. But think about this. You hear something embarrassing or something that makes you angry. The message is heard and interpreted by you according to the way you have learned to think, feel and act. As a result, you turn beet red or blush! If you are nervous about something, you may feel “butterflies” or your hands may get sweaty. If you are angry, you may feel “blood boiling,” you may have a “sour stomach,” or you may feel heat coming off of you. All of these examples are physical reactions to emotions. The message was heard, interpreted, chemicals were secreted, and you had a physical reaction to the message. That’s just one incident! Now imagine the stress of motherhood, trying to be a good wife, co-worker, daughter, sister, friend, or neighbor. Add the need to be perfect, liked, approved, admired and respected. Mix it with stress, tension, and anxiety from past hurts, grievances, and negative feelings stemming from a perspective or outlook that doesn’t suit you. What do you have? A prescription for conditions related to stress, illness and disease. While this may sound scary, the beauty is that you are in a wonderful position to stop the stress response. Remember, your stress may not change. However, what can change is how you choose to react.