Simply put, stress is our body’s response to change. Stress, as a natural reaction to positive changes (i.e. marriage) and negative changes (i.e. losing a job), allows us to adapt to new circumstances. Everyone responds to stress differently, which is in part genetic, in part learned, in part circumstantial, and in part within our control. Common responses to chronic stress include anger, depression, deflation, worry, irritability and frustration.
Physiologically, stress involves the release of several hormones that impact our body’s functioning. The purpose of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol is to help us focus and jump to action to resolve the stress. Physically, stress can manifest itself as:
- elevated heart rate and blood pressure (to quickly fuel our cells with oxygen and nutrients);
- muscle tension (ready to run or fight)
- intense focus on the source of stress (preparedness to resolve the situation)
- slowed digestion (priority is placed on responding to the situation)
- slowed immune system (priority is place on responding to the situation)
- lowered capacity for reproduction (priority is placed on responding to the situation)
- disrupted sleep patterns (unable to fall asleep or waking up at 4 am, ready to tackle the situation)
For individuals who are not able to practice the healthy, growth-serving coping practices (see the previous section on Overcoming Obstacles), elevated stress levels over prolonged periods will manifest in exacerbated health issues. The elevated heart rate and blood pressure can lead to heart attacks or hypertension; muscle tension can lead to aches and pains and increased likelihood of injury; the intense focus can lead inability to address the larger picture. Can you think of other impacts of chronic stress?
Whatever the source of stress, identify the current coping strategies – both health and unhealthy. Commit to changing one unhealthy habit through a single daily action. Research shows that 10 minutes per day is adequate to begin to see positive effects after four weeks of daily practice.