Do you feel stressed? Maybe you think “I’m not that stressed” or “I’m handling it okay.” But, do you suffer from feeling overwhelmed, fatigue, irritability, time pressures, muscle tension, headaches, brain fog, memory troubles or frustration? If you answered “yes” to any of those, your body may be suffering from the long-term effects of stress. In this article, I will explain how stress can impact our bodies and suggest a few ways to cope with stress to teach our bodies to become more resilient.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, stress levels have seemed to be higher than before the pandemic. Left unaddressed, stress can have negative effects on long-term health and well-being. Now more than ever, it is vital to learn how to build up resilience to stress. What do I mean by resilience? Simply put, it’s harnessing the powerful healing ability of the human body through the utilization of techniques that build harmony in mind, body and spirit.
Types of Stress
First, let’s consider two main types of stress: positive (good) stress, and negative (distress) stress. What distinguishes the two is how each type impacts our overall well-being. For example, getting a raise at work is considered an example of a positive stressor, whereas debt is considered a negative stressor. Stress can further be divided into acute, which is typically unexpected and short lasting, and chronic, which is constant and repetitive. It is chronic stress which plagues our society as a whole. The initial COVID-19 isolation mandates in early 2020 were acute stressors, but became a chronic stressors for many as the pandemic continued each month without a clear end in sight.
Responses to Stress
Let’s consider how the body responds to stress. In sudden stressful situations, hormones are released that prepare the body for action – this is called the “fight or flight” response. The primary hormones responsible for this response are epinephrine and cortisol. Designed to prepare the body for action, these hormones are not harmful in short bursts because the body is able to restore homeostasis afterwards. However, when stress is chronic and unrelenting, there is a constant, low-level secretion of cortisol that occurs in the body as an adaptation attempt to maintain balance and optimize bodily functions. Over time, the impact from this maladaptive response can be dangerous, creating inflammation in the body, which often serves as a precursor to the most common diseases, including cardiovascular disease (such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol), diabetes, hypothyroidism, and inflammatory bowel disease.
Importance of Resilience
When we build resilience to stress in mind, body and spirit, the body is able to return to its normal functional capacity in response to stressors over time, decreasing the negative impacts the constant release of cortisol can have on the body. Building resilience actively engages the body’s rest and relaxation response – it’s the state the body needs to be in to rebuild and repair itself. As resilience increases, the detrimental effects of stress decrease. Though it can take time to recover from the long-term effects of stress, it can be done. Developing a resilience practice is a choice we each get to make – no one can do it for you. If you feel challenged to make this choice for yourself, then perhaps do it for someone you love, like a spouse, a partner or your children.
Here are three simple steps you can take to start building resilience:
1. Cultivate awareness – recognize the signs of unaddressed stress on your body and behavior. Some of the signs include:
- muscle tension
- constant worry
- time pressures
- impaired memory
- feelings of isolation
- change in appetite
- accident prone
- sugar cravings
- alcohol use to “relax”
2. Self-study – Make note of situations and experiences in your daily life that create or aggravate your symptoms. Keep a notebook handy and write it down. Once you’re aware of the challenging situations, you can take steps to build resilience when you experience them.
3. Take charge of your calm – Try one of the following techniques to build resilience and help restore peace of mind during stressful times:
- Breathe deep – Exhale, then take a deep breath into your belly. Repeat three times.
- Move your body – Go for a brisk walk or dance to your favorite music for five minutes.
- Focus on what you can control – yourself and how you respond to the situation.
Regardless of which technique you try, take a few moments to notice how you feel afterward. Understand that this is a journey to find peace, and it will take regular, daily practice. Repetition is the path to skill. As you begin to address your stress, peace of mind will follow, as will your overall state of well-being.
May you be successful in your resilience-building endeavors!