STRESS and Your Body

"Stress is not a state of mind... it's measurable and dangerous, and humans can't seem to find their off-switch." These daunting words come from neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky in the documentary Stress: Portrait of a Killer.

What’s the most stressful thing you did last week?  Cram for a work deadline?  Successfully juggle an impossibly full schedule?  Fought endless lines of taillights only to get home and deal with a sick child?  Fight to protect your property and your family?  Generations ago, perhaps your stress was escaping a bear or surviving a famine.  Whether it’s a work deadline or a primal fear to protect, our bodies are wired to respond to stress.  Your body’s stress response is perfectly healthy when there’s a real emergency (being chased by a bear), but if your body is constantly getting these same stress signals over and over again because of work, traffic or a packed schedule, it’s only a matter of time before your body burns out. 

Words to Know:

Sympathetic Nervous System:  The "on" switch of the autonomic nervous system that is responsible for sending out hormones to get the body quickly prepared for a fight or flight response.

Parasympathetic Nervous System:  The "off" switch of the autonomic nervous system that relaxes the body and brings it back to a state balance for repair and rest. 

There are three stages the body will go through once the sympathetic nervous system is engaged.

The first stage is the Alarm Stage.  Once panic is sensed, the SNS (sympathetic nervous system) will send signals to your brain to trigger certain hormones like cortisol and adrenaline.  This is called the fight-or-flight response.  The rest of your body is then made aware of these symptoms and starts to equip you to prepare for an emergency.  The following responses will take place as your level of stress increases: 

  • Pulse quickens
  • Blood pressure increases 
  • Blood sugar increases
  • Blood fats increase
  • Respiration enhances 
  • The body sweats more 
  • Pupils dilate 

The second stage is referred to as the Adaptive/Resistance Stage.  During this time, your body tries to clamber back to reach a state of balance.  Many times, especially if our perception of stress is healthy, this is able to happen.  However, if stress reactions are triggered too often, then your body cannot find it’s way back to this state of balance and remains in high alert.  As a result the body becomes resistant to continuous stressors and the production of cortisol and adrenaline remain consistent.  This pattern not only lowers functionality of the immune system, but takes a toll on many specific areas of the body as well.  

The third stage is referred to as Exhaustion.  This is when your body starts to shut down because it hasn’t had a chance to go back to a resting stage at all.  It’s very difficult to achieve optimal health if we are running around all day in panic mode.  This ultimately speeds up the aging process and can lead to other long term illnesses.  

It’s important to note that we all get stressed at times.  It’s impossible to stay away from it, but we need to be better at controlling how we react to it so that we can prevent it from wreaking havoc on our immune systems and making us sick.  Our goal is to daily switch on the part of the nervous system that helps us to rest and relax.  In other words, we need to engage the parasympathetic nervous system in order to bring our bodies and minds back to state of homeostasis.  

What practices do you engage in to help bring yourself back to balance during a stressful day or after a stressful situation?  I'd love to hear what works for you!