Somewhere along the way, we decided that being stressed and tired was a badge of honor. When you ask people how they are, they usually say they’ve been busy or have a lot on their plate. We of course, do have a lot to do, but why do we publicize it the way we do? Why are we proud to be so exhausted and of living stressful lives? Somewhere along the way, it became synonymous with success and accomplishment. But the truth is, being under constant stress isn’t good for our bodies.
Lucky for us, scientists are uncovering more about stress, which can ultimately help us deal with it better. Recently, researchers out of Yale were able to pinpoint the neural connections that are made during moments of stress in human subjects. “These findings may help us tailor therapeutic intervention to multiple targets,” said senior study author Rajita Sinha, who is also a professor in Yale’s Child Study Center and neuroscience department.
How Stress Affects the Body
Research shows that stress can actually rewire and restructure the brain. It can affect the limbic system, which controls emotion and memory, and new research is finding that norepinephrine, released during a stressful event, suppresses protein synthesis.
It’s not just your brain that’s affected. “Studies of mice have revealed that the brains of highly stressed mice suffered from physical changes that made them more prone to depression and anxiety,” says Dr. Bradley Nelson, D.C., author of The Emotion Code. According to Dr. Nelson, other side effects include lowered immune function and elevated blood sugar and blood fat levels.
“Chronic stress results in the body losing its ability to regulate the inflammatory response, or the body’s response to trauma or injury,” says Dr. Nelson. “In addition, another fascinating study is now indicating that the level of stress-induced inflammation in the body is directly related to the emotions that a person chooses in response to their stressful situations. If you choose negative emotions, you are choosing more inflammation, but if you choose to respond to stressful situations with cheerfulness and acceptance, your inflammation levels will be lower. Inflammation is now thought to be the underlying cause of many illnesses, including allergies, digestive disorders, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.”
If you are chronically stressed, you may have increased susceptibility to illness, depression, anxiety, allergies, and exhaustion, as well as increased pain in joints and muscles.
Dealing with Stress
In Dr. Nelson’s experience, following these five steps is often enough to change the ‘automatic’ stress response into a healthier one. He offers these five simple ways to respond in stressful situations to improve your mood and health:
Recognize unresolved emotions guide our choices on a daily basis
For example, if you have a trapped emotion of anger from a past event, you’ll be more likely to become angry when future situations arise that may upset you. This is because part of your body is already resonating with anger and is just waiting for someone (or something stressful) to light the fuse.
Listen to your body (and when necessary, say “no”)
This might be one of the biggest game changers when dealing with stress. Don’t volunteer to take on additional tasks if it interferes with your health, your family, or your stress level—it won’t be worth it.
Exercise has been shown to reduce anxiety and stress. But if fitting that practice into an already packed schedule is only adding to your stress, you might benefit from some more creative options, like finding ways to incorporate more activity into your routine. “Find a way to work exercise into your daily chores,” says Dr. Nelson. “Challenge yourself to get the whole house cleaned in half the normal time, and you’ll work up a sweat with all the scrubbing and running from room to room.”
When you go out to eat with friends, come prepared with stories to tell so you’re talking more, and as a result, eating more slowly. Eat your salad first so you fill up on nutritious, whole foods instead of the processed foods that tend to come up later in the meal. Studies have also shown that people are more likely to overeat at night when under stress. Set yourself up for success by eating your meal earlier or finding other ways to deal with your stress.
Take a breather
If you find people you are with are making you feel stressed out, go outside for a few minutes to get some fresh air. “Ask yourself if you’re overreacting,” Dr. Nelson explains. “Recognize your own feelings and analyze what the other person meant to say. Give the other person the benefit of the doubt–it’s likely no offense was meant. If you aren’t sure, ask for clarification, then respond appropriately, with kindness, with love and with forgiveness if you can.” This can also be applied to social media. If scrolling through unsettling content is making you angry, turn off the phone. Or better yet, switch over to a mindfulness meditation app—they’ve been shown to reduce the body’s response to stress.