Susan Boyle made people all over the world smile and cry when she achieved her dream of singing on Britain’s Got Talent. Sadly, what should have been the greatest moment of her life nearly overwhelmed her, and she ended up being hospitalized for stress and exhaustion. Most people are familiar with how tension and anxiety feel, but you may not know about the long term effects stress can have on your health. Even in the absence of an acute breakdown like Boyle’s, continued exposure to stress may be drastically impacting your body.
Our emotional well being is a finely balanced thing; any significant change in your life or routine, whether good or bad, can be enough to upset that balance. Moving to a new house, worrying about excelling at your job, illness in the family, or even just an upheaval in your schedule can set off the series of chemical reactions we call stress. It results from the release of hormones like adrenalin and glucocorticoids, and is related to the more primitive fight or flight response.
This response evolved in our ancestors as a protective mechanism to help us run for our lives in the face of serious danger. The hormones raise blood pressure, energize muscles, hyper-focus the mind, and dampen temporarily non-essential body functions like memory, reproduction, and digestion. The problems arise when the same chemical reaction intended to save us from rampaging wild animals kicks in as a result of the daily, and comparatively minor, pressures of life. The hormones that would help save your life in the short term begin to do damage over time.
You’re likely to notice the emotional aspects of stress like anxiety and depression first, but the physiological side-effects can be even more wide ranging. Sudden spikes in your level of tension can contribute to headaches, insomnia, digestive issues like heartburn and irritable bowel syndrome, skin rashes, changes in menstrual patterns, and sexual dysfunction. Sustained stress weakens your immune system to make you more susceptible to infectious diseases, increases your risk of heart disease, and may play a role both in infertility and certain cancers like breast and ovarian.
Knowing what stress is doing to your body, you owe it to yourself to be proactive. There are things you can do to help turn the body-mind connection in your favor:
- Start by getting more exercise. The endorphins released during physical activity are natural mood boosters.
- Seek out activities that are relaxing to you. Whether it’s yoga, meditation, knitting, reading, or dance, the key is to prioritize whatever helps you unwind and to do it on a regular basis.
- Nurture your connections with other people. Research shows that individuals with strong social support systems and emotional ties to others suffer less from stress-related diseases. Oxytocin, a hormone related to love, nurturing, and bonding is another natural happiness aid.
Since a calm mind and a healthy body go hand in hand, when you learn to manage your stress, you’ll not only feel better right away, you’ll be investing in every aspect of your well-being. Then whatever life throws your way, you’ll be strong enough, physically and emotionally, to weather the storm.