What happens when you dash for a bus or a train? You can no doubt feel how your body responds by increasing your blood pressure and making your heart beat faster. Even if you miss your ride, your heart rate and breathing generally return to normal.
IF YOU are dealing with a long-term stressful situation, though, it may be different. Anxiety, muscle tension, increased blood pressure, and disturbed digestion may take longer to return to normal. More and more people find that the tension never goes away. For instance, many feel trapped in a dead-end job. How does stress affect your body and your health?
Your Body’s Reaction to Stress
Dr. Arien van der Merwe, an expert on the subject, explains how your body reacts to stress. It instantly kicks into action, and a complex “stress cascade of neurochemicals and hormones rushes through your entire body, preparing every organ and system for the Red Alert stress response.”
You are immediately ready to take out-of-the-ordinary action. All your senses—including sight, hearing, and touch—are involved.
Your brain quickly reacts, and your adrenal glands instantly release powerful hormones, revving up your muscles as well as your heart, lungs, and other organs for whatever might be needed to handle the stressful situation.
Thus in an emergency your body’s stress response may save your life, such as when it makes you leap out of the way of an oncoming car. It is a completely different matter, however, when stress is unrelenting.
When Stress Becomes an Enemy
What if your body is constantly revved up? Your muscles remain tense, your pulse rate and blood pressure stay high, and elevated levels of cholesterol, fats, sugars, hormones, and other chemicals linger in the blood. Prolonged elevated levels of such chemicals—meant for short, intense, and infrequent bursts of activity—eventually damage important body organs. With what consequences?
You may begin experiencing backaches, headaches, muscle spasms of the neck, and muscle tension. According to doctors, those symptoms are often related to chronic stress. Ongoing stress can hamper creativity and productivity, as well as erode enthusiasm and damage interpersonal relationships. It can also lead to irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhea, and esophageal spasms.
The consequences of chronic stress may even be more serious. Stroke, heart attack, kidney failure, cardiovascular problems, and diabetes may be caused by or made worse by prolonged stress.
“Because of the secretion of cortisol in long-term stress,” writes Van der Merwe, “fat tends to accumulate around the abdomen and back.” Skin disorders, such as eczema and psoriasis, are associated with—or aggravated by—stress.
Severe stress has also been linked to depression, increased aggression, and burnout. Memory and concentration too can be permanently impaired by constant stress. An immune system seriously compromised by long-term stress can make a person vulnerable to anything from the common cold to cancer and autoimmune diseases.
Stress has a huge impact on all aspects of our well-being—mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual—so we need to know how to control it. Yet, we do not want to eliminate the body’s stress response altogether. Why not?
We might liken stress to a spirited horse. It can give us an enjoyable and exhilarating ride. However, if it goes wildly out of control, it can endanger our life. Similarly, stress in manageable doses can make life enjoyable and exhilarating, providing us with the stimulus to be creative, productive, enthusiastic, and healthy.
How, though, can we keep stress at manageable levels so that we can get the most out of our life?
Lighten Your Load
THE CHALLENGE: Overscheduling.
“Someone will ask me to help out with something or to socialize when I really have things that I need to do. I just don’t want to let anyone down.”—Karina.
THE REMEDY: Learn to say no.
“Wisdom is with the modest ones,” says the Bible. (Proverbs 11:2) Modesty, or accepting your limitations, empowers you to say no when the load will be too heavy for you to carry.
Of course, saying no isn’t always an option—for example, when your parents remind you about your chores! But if you let everyone add to your load, you’ll eventually give out. Even the biggest trucks have a load limit.
Tip: If it’s hard for you to turn down someone outright, try saying, “Let me get back to you.” Then, before giving a definite reply, ask yourself, ‘Can I really afford to invest the time and energy needed for this activity?’
THE CHALLENGE: Procrastination.
“If a task seems difficult, I’ll put it off. But then I’ll worry about the fact that I still have to do it. When I finally start on it, I have to rush, which stresses me out.”—Serena.
THE REMEDY: Get started—even if you don’t finish now.
“Do not loiter at your business,” advises the Bible. (Romans 12:11) Confronting a hard task is bad enough, so why add to the load by procrastinating? That just keeps it before you longer!
To create incentive, make a to-do list. Break down big tasks into manageable sizes. “I love lists,” says a young woman named Carol. “Usually I put the things I dislike the most first, and then as I check them off, it gets easier. Before you know it, you can move on to the things in your life that are more fun!”
Tip: If you struggle to get started on a task, set a timer for 10 or 15 minutes and begin working on it right away. When the alarm goes off, you’ll have 10 or 15 minutes of the job completed. Now that you’ve started, you might be surprised at how much easier it is to do more on the task.
Get a More Powerful “Engine”
● Take care of your body. Experts agree that a healthful diet, regular exercise, and proper sleep will help you to get more done. Don’t worry—taking care of your body isn’t all that complicated. A few simple steps will get you started. Take sleep, for example. Try the following.
1. Get enough sleep. Set regular times to go to bed and to get up, at least on school days and workdays.
2. Allow yourself enough time to unwind. Don’t exercise within three hours before going to bed, and avoid heavy snacks and caffeine as bedtime nears.
3. When it’s time to go to bed, try to make your bedroom dark, quiet, and comfortable.
● Connect with others. Don’t hesitate to turn to your parents and friends for assistance. Will that really help? Yes, for studies show that emotional support reduces the damage that increased stress can cause to your heart, blood vessels, and immune system.
Those findings agree with the Bible, which says: “Anxious care in the heart of a man is what will cause it to bow down, but the good word is what makes it rejoice.” (Proverbs 12:25) When “anxious care” weighs you down, true friends can offer you a “good word” of encouragement, which may be just what you need to make it through.