Let’s Get Serious About Chronic Stress

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Wellness Bytes #8

Relocating from Atlanta, raising 4 children while attending grad school, working as a health practitioner and running a business have certainly exposed me to chronic stressors.  We are all potentially vulnerable.

What is stress?

It could be that feeling you get when joyously implementing a project that is dear to you.  You have a surge in energy and vitality in the moment.  Your body quickly returns to baseline when you want to relax.

OR

Imagine you are driving to work. Suddenly someone from the lane next to you swerves close to your car.   Your foot hits the brake, your heart rate speeds up, your blood pressure elevates and your pupils dilate without your thinking.  Your adrenal hormones release cortisol and your blood sugar rises to supply your brain and muscles.  You are prepared to act quickly for survival.   Afterward you may notice a shaky feeling in your body and a nagging feeling of distress. Both are aftereffects of the “adrenaline surge” that prepared you to avoid danger. This is an acute stress response, but what happens in chronic stress?

Our brain is busy classifying and labeling everything that happens in our day.  It connects current activities with remembered events or emotions.  Those connections may be both positive and negative, and they are intended to keep us safe.  Unfortunately some of those negative connections are very unhelpful in that they can trigger an unwanted stress response.  Basically, our brain does not differentiate a real threat from an imagined threat.

Over time, the stress response continues to encourage the release of adrenal hormones which have effects on just about every area of the body.  People who have high chronic stress levels often report:

  • fatigue
  • difficulty concentrating
  • forgetfulness
  • accidents
  • headaches
  • stomach disturbances
  • body aches
  • anxiousness
  • depressed mood
  • viral illnesses

and when chronic stress goes on for years it can be associated with more serious conditions such as:

  • heart disease
  • diabetes
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • challenges with the immune system
  • chronic pain

The answer is not simple.  The journey to balancing stress is multifaceted and requires enhancing your daily awareness, making intentional choices and practicing stress reduction techniques.  The good news is that we can choose to create new brain habits!  And our brains can learn new ways of responding through repetition.  Reducing your vulnerability and raising your resilience will enhance your health.

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Here is a quick tool that you can use without anyone noticing.  When you feel stress or discomfort in your body, direct your attention to where you most easily feel your breath entering and leaving your system.  For me, it is the tip of the nose, the nostrils.  Pay attention to just the airflow for about 5 breaths; don’t try to change the breath, just notice it  – practice regularly so that you can easily use it during your day.

 If you find yourself suffering from unrelenting symptoms associated with stress, don’t hesitate to see your health care provider.  Some health conditions have similar symptoms to the ones I have described.

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