Stress is defined as a “physical, mental, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension” (1). However, this does not necessarily mean that all stress is bad. Stress, when handled appropriately, can create positive changes in our lives as long as it only occurs in small bursts on an infrequent basis. Long-term exposure to stress, which occurs quite often in today’s society, can have devastating physical effects of stress on the body and can lead to multiple diseases and disorders. The following are just a few of the potential side effects caused by the prolonged exposure to stress: Cardiovascular disease, Migraines, Muscle tension, Eating and sleep disorders, and even cancer.
The body’s stress release system, most commonly referred to as the Fight-or-Flight response, utilizes the hormones adrenalin and cortisol. “These hormones, together with direct actions of autonomic nerves, cause the heart to beat faster, respiration rate to increase, blood vessels in the arms and legs to dilate, the digestive process to change and glucose levels (sugar energy) in the bloodstream to increase in order to deal with the emergency” (2). Think about the sensations felt during a motor vehicle accident, your body is not focusing on properly digesting your food or maintaining homeostasis. Instead, you will notice an increase in your blood pressure and pulse rate as your heart is working overtime to supply your body with more oxygen in order to either fight for survival or run to safety. The quick response is made for survival in allowing the body to put all of its effort into the given situation, physical effects of stress.
Now imagine a situation where prolonged stress exposure has taken place. The “repeated activation of the stress response takes a toll on the body. Research suggests that chronic stress contributes to high blood pressure, promotes the formation of artery-clogging deposits, and causes brain changes that may contribute to anxiety, depression, and addiction” (3). Your heart is constantly working overtime, your digestive system is no longer able to function on an optimal level, you may notice changes in your reproductive system and will have a depleted immune system as your body is no longer focused on maintaining a strong healthy environment, physical effects of stress. These imbalances cause your body to become more acidic and open to outside pathogens. This unhealthy combination can allow for the production and metastasis of cancerous cells in the body. Those who suffer from chronic stress are also more likely to have a stroke or heart attack in the near future as well.
The initial activation of the flight or fight response system can affect our judgment and cause us to make rash decisions. This is especially true when an individual is confronted by a devastating medical diagnosis, such as cancer. We are told by mainstream medical physicians that chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery are the only treatment options available and that time is at the essence to begin treatment immediately. The fear they install into patients causes immense stress and can “blur” their judgment and prevent an individual from even considering alternative medicine. It is important to note that no two people are alike and that what may work for one individual does not necessarily work for everyone. When making a crucial health decision, take a moment and identify the stress and analyze your situation and different treatment options.
There are ways in which it is possible to diminish the effects of stress, however, the first step is understanding what is the initial cause of the stress. You need to be able to identify what is making you stressed and establish a strategy to handle the situation or individual. It’s not uncommon for individuals to become “blind” to the cause of their stress. For example, a young teenager experiencing the first love may not understand when a relationship is going “sour”. They have the desire to continue the relationship without realizing that they are experiencing large amounts of unnecessary stress. Within any stressful situation, it is important to take a step back and practice being mindful. Mindfulness refers to the ability to look at a situation in its entirety without bias. By doing so, you are able to make rational decisions and decrease the overall stress associated with a situation. Also, taking time for yourself is very beneficial in reducing stress. Understanding yourself and learning to enjoy being with just yourself is essential in de-stressing. Personal grooming, relaxation massages, journaling, and hobbies such as music, knitting or painting are all excellent examples of ways to de-stress.