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Know the Difference between Healthy vs Chronic Stress

When stress hits, the human body responds. The reaction is fast—we adapt without even making a conscious decision most of the time. We humans are hard-wired for survival. Knowing when chronic stress has taken hold of you is critical.

Think about coping with stressors in your daily life, especially with the most recent threat to our health with Covid-19. Children at home, work deadlines, getting dinner done, taxes! Most of us are probably more stressed about getting enough sleep and making enough money than any human in other eras were.

Chronic stress takes its tollNot all stress is a terrible thing—in fact, it is vital for our human survival instincts. When a stressor hits us (in ancient times, a bear attack; in modern times, a near car crash), your body prioritizes certain systems. This is an automatic response meant to keep us alive and performing efficiently during stress. Blood flow to our muscles increases, our heart beats faster in order to oxygenate our limbs, our eyesight and hearing sharpen, our adrenaline spikes to increase reaction time. We are ready to flee a bear or react to a swerving vehicle.

Short-Term Stress and Its Benefits

This short-term stress can be incredibly beneficial. It makes us high-functioning in certain ways that are ideal for fast movement, quick decisions and self-preservation. When you need to answer questions quickly in an important meeting; when you need to make a split-second decision to keep your family safe and happy; when you witness an emergency and know you can help. At times like these, stress is “good.”

There is a flip-side, however. When your body encounters stress like that, it is more concerned with instantaneous survival than long-term effects. This comes from an evolutionary response to needing to stay alive; when a bear attacks, your need to stay alive right now. Everything else pales in comparison.

As blood flow to your muscles increases and your eyesight sharpens, your body diverts energy away from less vital systems. So, when stress hits your immune and digestive systems, it decrease activity. Your sexual drive and sense of taste are less active. Your torso and core get less blood flow (after all, it’s your legs that do the running away).

This is all fine in the short-term, while you are giving a presentation, hustling to make a connecting flight or working out in a HIIT class. But in the long term, chronic stress takes its toll on the body.

Tight deadlines can cause short-term stress

Chronic Stress Defined

"Chronic stress is the response to emotional pressure suffered for a prolonged period of time in which an individual perceives they have little or no control." ~Wikipedia

Have you ever experienced a period of prolonged stress and felt the constant strain on your body? During chronic stress, people tend not to sleep or eat well, their hair may fall out, they may have notable weight change, decreased sex drive, moodiness, digestive issues, and women may lose their menstrual cycle. The body is not giving adequate attention to what it deems “non-vital” functions or reserving energy for survival. Over time, stress takes the body to a place that is not at all comfortable.

Lack of sleep, poor digestion and emotional disconnection seem awfully common now. There are too many things to do to get eight hours of sleep every night. Weight loss can seem impossible even if you try to eat right and exercise. Genuine, deep relationships are more challenging—people are busy.

Chronic stress in our bodies manifests itself in ways that looks oddly similar to many common medical symptoms. You can think of it like the body constantly flexing, gripping, and preparing for attack. It’s exhausting!

Read about the importance of emotional regulation to handle your stress: "Why You Should Care About Emotional Regulation"

Ways to Manage Your Stress

If you realize your body is in a state of chronic stress, using tools like meditation, yoga, deep breathing, relaxing exercise, mindfulness and digital detoxes can help create ease. Even just five minutes of deep breathing exercises can cue your body’s central nervous system to go from fight-or-flight mode to rest-and-digest mode (the parasympathetic nervous system). Slow, deep breathing and stretching can signal the Vagus Nerve, which runs parallel to the wind-pipe, down the throat and then wanders to all the major parts of the body, carrying signals for relaxation. With the parasympathetic nervous system activated, the body will digest food better, sleep more deeply, and activate its immune system to keep you healthy preparing for attack. It’s exhausting!

Related reading: "How Resilience Can Help You Cultivate Happiness"

A man overwhelmed by too many demandsIf you need to perform well for a job evaluation or dodge speeding cars—stress can be a wonderful thing! Studies show that stress up to a certain point actually enhances productivity. So if you want to burn extra calories in a HIIT class or make a tight deadline at work, stress is an amazing motivator. But, for overall health and wellness throughout your life (hopefully a long one), chronic stress has the opposite effect. When juggling many demands, stress builds. Be sure and take a break when needed. Breathe deep. Take a short walk away from your computer to refresh yourself. Or if your company has a gym, schedule some workout time mid-day.

It's important to remember that not all stress is a bad thing. One large study discovered that how people perceive stress is a better indicator of health and life expectancy than the amount of stress people actually experienced. Turns out that just changing the way you view stress is a stress management tool in itself.

Awareness of the stressors around you, how you perceive stress, and how you let stressors affect your body is a wonderful place to start to get a handle on the ill-effects of stress.

And for more keys to stress relief and to thrive in your life while cultivating emotional intelligence, contact us today at Heartmanity.

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Enid R. Spitz / Heartmanity ContributorEnid R. Spitz / Heartmanity Contributor
Enid Spitz is a writer, yoga instructor, and works at the popular Lululemon. She previously lived in Portland, OR and Seattle, WA, where she was a newspaper editor and researched yoga for Traumatic Brain Injury. Heartmanity combines Enid's passions for social well-being, neuroscience, and yoga. When not writing or on the yoga mat, she is an avid traveller, and loves being outdoors.

Posted in Habits for Health, Emotional Intelligence

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