Your alarm clock didn’t go off and now you’re late for your 9 AM Zoom meeting—we’ve all been there and have experienced short-term stress to some degree. But what happens when our stress response won’t stop firing? Though short-term stress can be useful, in today’s world it’s not uncommon for many of us to live in a continual, jaw-clenched state with our adrenals in overdrive.
“Most people are overstressed and undernourished, which leads to chronic wear and tear on our system, a reduced ability to adapt in positive ways, and more episodes of mental health and balances such as anxiety, depression, and burn out,” says Dr. Heidi Hanna, chief energy officer of Synergy Brain Fitness, senior researcher with the Brain Health Initiative, and a fellow and advisory board member for the American Institute of Stress.
To put it simply, stress is a reaction that occurs anytime there is a greater demand on our energy across multiple areas than what we have the capacity to give in the moment. And though not all stress is bad, carrying around heavy emotions, trauma, guilt, and resentment wreaks havoc on our bodies and wellbeing, which can lead to long-term consequences.
Good Stress vs. Bad Stress
Short-term stress, also known as acute stress, can be positive and even healthy. It can help with any event or emotion that makes you feel frustrated, fearful, angry, or nervous such as a dangerous situation or meeting a deadline.
“Acute stress actually enhances much of our ability to navigate short term challenges and changes effectively, including things like improved immune function, increased heart rate, enhanced oxygenation to the body, improved memory, focus, and attention, and so on,” says Hanna. “However, when a real or perceived threat continues for longer than approximately 30-minutes, or we are unable to take some appropriate action to resolve it, the chronic stress reaction cycle takes over.”
Chronic stress, which is long-term and perceived by the brain as ongoing, turns stress that was initially helpful to harmful, “as we cannot maintain such high levels of energy output for long periods of time without rest, recovery, and repair,” says Hanna.
How Does Stress Get Stuck In The Body?
Everyone deals with chronic stress differently and oftentimes we attempt to push these unwanted feelings out of our awareness by forcefully denying and repressing them. But the longer we bottle them up, the more likely it is that they’ll manifest in some form in our physical bodies.
“The mind and the body are intertwined,” says Dr. Bernadette Mazurek Melnyk, PhD, Vice President for Health Promotion, Professor and Dean of the College of Nursing at The Ohio State University. “For example, when the mind perceives stress, the body’s fight or flight response kicks in. In chronic stress, hormones are secreted that have adverse effects on the body’s cardiovascular, neurological, and immune systems.”
In order for our body and mind to stay healthy, the emotions and energy within must be in a constant “flow”. When stress and emotions aren’t worked through properly, this energy has nowhere to go and literally gets stuck, intensifies, and stagnates inside the body. In more serious cases, it can lead to diseases such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s.
“A lot of this has to do with the rewiring that happens in the brain and nervous system, and the chronic overuse of our adaptability processes such as immune function that fatigue over time,” says Hanna. “We can see this in changes to the structure, function, and chemistry in the brain and body. Including inflammatory markers that will often stimulate anything that is already wrong in the body. Again, it is important to note that these are healthy processes that we need to survive and thrive but not if we are overusing them and under recovering from them due to our chronically elevated stress states.”
Where Can Stress Get Stuck In The Body?
Whether it appears as stiff joints, tension, blockages, increased inflammation, digestive discomfort, reduced immune function or other symptoms, “unmanaged, chronic stress can absolutely get stuck in our body in various areas including joints, tissues, and organs,” says Hanna.
Some areas where you can feel the physical effects of chronic stress include the pelvic floor and hips, back and shoulders, jaw and neck, stomach and gut, and immune system. It can also strain the brain and nervous system, causing them to adapt in ways that may be beneficial in the short-term but are dangerous in the long-term. “This cognitive rewiring shows up in reduced strength and function of the cortical real estate in our brain that helps us to problem solve, think rationally and logically, and collaborate well with others,” says Hanna. “Simultaneously, it also strengthens and over activates the fear centers and negative emotional reaction patterns in the brain.”
How Do I Relieve Bodily Stress?
It’s vital to our mental, physical, and emotional wellness to let go of stress in order to live a healthy life. That said, the million-dollar question is: if it’s stuck, how do we release it? Luckily, there are numerous ways to deal with bodily stress.
Yoga. The combination of physical poses, controlled breathing, and moving meditation help lower blood pressure and heart rate, giving way for a great environment to release stress. “Yoga is a method of creating the conditions for something to arise in a safe and unforced way so we can sit face to face with these parts and meet them and navigate our way through them with kindness and flexibility,” says Emma Peel, a registered RYT level 2 yoga instructor with over 800 hours of study and 3,000 hours of teaching.
Exercise. Exercise is the most common way to relieve stress and help you relax later. It reduces your levels of stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol and stimulates endorphins, which are the body’s natural mood elevators.
Practice cognitive-behavioral skills. “At the base of the brain we need to calm the body and nervous system through techniques that soothe the senses and enhance a rhythmic breathing pattern,” says Hanna. “Studies have shown that breathing at a pace of about six breaths per minute, or five counts in and five to six counts out, can activate the parasympathetic reaction system responsible for our relaxation response.”
Sensory cues. Essential oils, warm water, massages, listening to calming sounds of the ocean, weighted blankets, and gentle physical activity can also help calm the base of the brain and nervous system.
Practice mindfulness. “It’s important to ask ourselves good questions especially in difficult times to engage the curiosity centers of the brain,” says Hanna. “When we get curious it reduces the pressure of needing to fix something, and allows us to see life as an experiment to be learned from.” Helpful questions can be anything from: “What am I grateful for today?” to “How might I be able to serve someone else in a simple way right now?”
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Restful sleep. Stress and bad sleep can be a vicious cycle leading to even more stress on your body as it needs time to recover from stressful events. Experts suggest adults get at least seven to nine hours of restful sleep each night.
Although the world is practicing social and physical distancing right now, that doesn’t mean we need to socially disconnect. “Studies have shown that feeling isolated is worse for our physical health than smoking cigarettes,” says Hanna. That said, practicing strategies that help us feel connected to other people can help us feel happier and in turn, reduce stress.
“Thinking about something or someone that you feel grateful for, practicing self compassion and gratitude for yourself, writing a handwritten thank you card or a kind email to someone else, and simply doing nice things for other people can all elicit a sense of gratitude, compassion, and kindness that reduces the overwhelm of stress,” says Hanna.
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.