Traditionally, the field of medicine has treated the physical body as entirely separate from emotional experiences.
While it’s true that some ailments (a broken bone, for example) are entirely physical in nature, other conditions aren’t so clear.
We know that some medical concerns, particularly those that may fit into the category of “chronic” conditions, are often associated with stress. Gastrointestinal disorders sleep problems, high blood pressure, and chronic pain are just a few conditions known to be caused by or worsened by high levels of untreated stress.
So how does this work? How does our experience of stress influence our health?
Our Stress Response System
To understand how stress influences health, we first have to understand what happens in our bodies when faced with a stressor. When our brain perceives a threat, our bodies experience a cascade of physiological processes. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) shifts into what is referred to as “fight, flight, freeze” as a means of trying to prepare to fight off the danger, flee for safety, or “play dead.”
The adrenal glands release the stress hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline into the body. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis also plays a role through a series of processes that result in the release of cortisol, another type of stress hormone. When this happens, the heart races, breathing rate increases, and your blood moves away from areas of the body that are more associated with “maintenance” processes, like digestion, to your arms and legs so you can run or fight.
Your brain shifts activity from more thinking and processing-based areas such as the prefrontal cortex to those involved in more emotional and behavioral responses linked to survival, such as the amygdala.1, 2 This “fight, flight, and freeze” system works very quickly and is extremely efficient and useful in truly life or death situations.
The Impact of Chronic Stress
Although this system is great in acute situations, problems start to arise when we face chronic stress, which means our body often activates our “fight, flight, freeze” response. This can happen either because we are in chronically stressful situations or because we perceive many situations as stressful. This repeated activation of our emergency response system can have a big impact on our bodies.
Those same stress hormones that are so helpful in preparing us to survive in an emergency situation can take a toll when they are repeatedly circulating in our body. Immunity is suppressed, inflammation occurs throughout the body that can cause damage over time, and proinflammatory cytokines produced in response to stress have been linked to “sickness behaviors,” such as depressed mood and fatigue that can make it hard to engage in positive health behaviors , like exercise.3,4 Over time, we may be more likely to experience a whole host of physical problems.
How to Manage Chronic Stress
The mind connection is very real and can significantly impact our health. However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything you can do to help buffer this effect, even if you are in a stressful situation that may not change.
How often the “fight, flight, and freeze” response is activated and how long it stays on can be influenced. The difference arises in interpreting stress and what we do about it. Try these ideas for calming the SNS.
Practice Activating the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS)
The counterpart to the SNS, the PNS communicates the opposite response to your body: that all is well and there is no danger. Exercises such as progressive muscle relaxation and diaphragmatic breathing allow you to get better at controlling your PNS. These exercises slow heart rate and breathing, reduce muscle tension and blood pressure, and lower fatigue. There are many guided exercises available online if you search these terms.
Shift Your Thinking
As mentioned earlier, our interpretation of an event, or the “story” we tell ourselves about it, can trigger our body to go into “fight, flight, or freeze.” If you’ve ever imagined a potential conflict in your mind, rehashed a stressful situation, or ruminated about a possible fear coming true, you’ve probably unintentionally stirred up your SNS.
Telling ourselves things such as “I just can’t make it through this” or “I’m so overwhelmed” is completely normal but may contribute to unnecessary SNS activation. We all have habits in how we engage with stress, and learning yours can really help see where you may have choices in thinking or behaving in a more helpful way.
It’s important to note that this isn’t the same as denying or minimizing your stress. Instead, you are simply looking for ways to get “unstuck” from unhelpful thought or behavioral patterns that keep you mired in stress. This past blog post has some examples of how to practice.
Physical activity can counteract the SNS response by reducing stress hormones circulating in the body and releasing endorphins, “feel good” chemicals that reduce pain and improve mood5. This can be as simple as going for a walk or gardening: anything that gets you moving counts.
Ask for Help
If you’re struggling with chronic stress and it’s impacting your health, it’s probably time to talk to a professional. Many evidence-based strategies are available that can help you more effectively manage stress. A psychologist can help with learning some of the previously described strategies, as well as techniques such as biofeedback that can help you learn to control bodily functions like your heart rate that are usually automatic.
You are not alone: We live in a highly stressful world and often cannot control the stress that comes our way. However, we have options in managing it to give ourselves the best possible chance of remaining as healthy as possible.