Are you someone who overeats to cope with stress? Perhaps you worry about your mental health and health goals and find yourself just not caring anymore because of emotional stress. In today’s blog post, you’re going to learn the common signs and degrees of stress, the negative effects it has on your health and body, and the best ways to cope and deal with stress.
What Are The Common Signs Of Stress?
Stress is your body’s natural response to an acute threat. This “fight-or-flight” response is driven by the hormones adrenaline and cortisol.
When you have to give a speech in front of a crowd, slam on your brakes in an abrupt traffic jam, or wake up late to your alarm, adrenaline and cortisol levels skyrocket quickly in our bodies.
However, your body is an adaptable machine and is able to quickly compensate in stressful times. After a short period of time, your blood pressure and heart rate lower back down to base.
- But what other degrees of stress are there?
- What are the long term effects of chronically elevated stress?
- How can you learn to reduce it?
The Different Degrees of Stress
“Distress” is an uncomfortable emotion you may feel when you experience something out of your control; when a family member or friend becomes hospitalized, when you lose a loved one, or something devastating happens in your life.
Despite feeling like you are unable to change the circumstance, support from family and friends can help balance your emotions and improve your overall resilience to these events.
- But what if you lack a support system?
- What if something happened to you early in life that affected your self-esteem, judgment, or overall capacity to develop good impulse control?
When a distressing event occurs in your life, the level of stress you may experience can reach a “toxic” level.
How Bad Is Stress For Your Health And Your Body?
Your brain is the ultimate regulator of stress.
Your brain decides if you perceive something as stressful or not and directs other systems in your body to respond accordingly.
When stress is sporadic, your brain and body are highly resilient. This is great news!
However, when your brain is under constant (and chronic) stress, irreversible damage can occur. Your brain is at a higher predisposition of developing:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Posttraumatic stress disorder-like behavior
- Social avoidance
- Social defeat
- Impaired memory
- Sleep disturbance
Your metabolism is another component within your body that becomes affected by stress.
Let’s take a brief step back into middle school biology class.
Do you remember learning about mitochondria?
Mitochondria are organelles within your cells that help create energy for your body to function. They play an essential role in your metabolism.
Unfortunately, when your stress levels are high (when cortisol levels are elevated), your mitochondria become less efficient and dysfunctional.
This dysfunction can lead to an increase in free-radical production. Free radicals are unstable molecules in your body that can cause damage and harm to your cells and your overall health.
Your immune system is your body’s natural defense against becoming sick. When you experience a short dose of stress in your life, your immune system is activated.
This is your body’s initial approach at defending itself (ie: fighting an infection or repairing a wound).
There is no foul harm to your overall health when your immune system is activated by a mild dose of stress.
But let’s say you’re in the “toxic” stress category and have been stressed at a high level for weeks on end. You may:
- Experience anxiety or depression
- Struggle with insomnia
- Overindulge in junk food beyond what your body needs
- Smoke or drink alcohol excessively
- Avoid friends
- Take time off work
- Stop exercising
- Spend more time on the computer doing sedentary activities
Perhaps you have Crohn’s Disease or arthritis. These chronic diseases induce stress throughout your entire body.
As a means to feel better, you may need to gravitate toward taking medications.
Unfortunately, these treatments are only band-aids to a bigger problem.
Over time, as your body works hard to battle these chronic stressors, it begins to break down.
Think of it this way- how would you feel if you worked 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 4 weeks a month, 12 months a year x multiple years without PTO or holidays??
EXHAUSTED… am I right?
Research has demonstrated associations between chronic levels of stress and pre-mature aging of cells (aka- shorter lifespan). Chronic forms of where severe stress can come from include:
- Being a caregiver of chronically disabled children or Alzheimer’s patients
- Extreme poverty, low income, hunger
- Exposure to violence: family violence, family conflict, physical, emotional or sexual abuse
- Parental abuse of alcohol and drugs
- Death of a loved one
- Job loss
The MESA study (Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis) followed 2231 adults ages 45-84 years old without cardiovascular disease over 10 years. They collected blood samples and looked at the overall health of their cells and how they reacted to stress by examining the patients’ telomeres.
Telomeres are protein-bound DNA complexes inside of your cells. Think of telomeres as the protective book covering to the sacred chapters of DNA text in each of your individual cells.
As your “book covers” become tattered and worn, you begin to age.
The MESA study considered both individual and neighborhood-related stressors. Neighborhood stress included:
- Trash/ litter on streets
- Safety (ie: walking during the day or night and violence)
- Social cohesiveness (ie neighbors willingness to help, getting along, trustworthiness, and sharing the same values)
Here’s what the MESA study results showed:
- Greater long-term stress was associated with increased aging
- When one’s stress level changes from LOW to HIGH, telomeres shortened by 6% (ie: your cells aged 6% faster)
- Increases in stress at the individual level was associated with increased aging in women
- Increases in stress at the neighborhood level was associated with increased aging in men
- Over 10 years, those with decreasing levels of stress age slower than those with increasing stress levels
What Is The Best Way To Deal With Stress?
Stressful relationships, experiences, environments, and circumstances are omnipresent.
So how do you prevent yourself from letting stress affect your health and wellness?
Here are 3 of the most important ways:
- Eat healthy foods that are clean & minimally processed
- Keep your body moving intentionally throughout the day
- Bring mindful aware to your intentions to eat
Choosing foods that are clean and minimally processed significantly reduces your blood sugar levels.
With well controlled sugar levels, you are better able to think more clearly and have stable and sustainable energy throughout the day. This helps regulate mood, temperament, and hormonal balance.
However, eating clean can be TOUGH.
Are you looking to…
- Be able to make healthier food choices the majority of the time to feel more comfortable in your own skin?
- Be healthy and peaceful?
- Feel better both physically and mentally?
Don’t let yourself get in your own way by allowing your thoughts and feelings “that it won’t happen” take over and win.
NO, you’re not lazy.
NO, you don’t lack self discipline.
NO, you’re not weak.
What you actually need is support and accountability to keep your efforts consistent and on track!
Cellular Response to Chronic Psychosocial Stress: Ten-Year Longitudinal Changes in Telomere Length in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis. Helen CS Meier, Mustafa Hussein, Belinda Needham, Sharrelle Barber, Jue Lin, Teresa Seeman and Ana Diez Roux. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2019-09-01, Volume 107, Pages 70-81, Copyright 2019 Elsevier Ltd.
Neurobiological and Systemic Effectsof Chronic Stress (Thousand Oaks). McEwen, Bruce S. 2017 Jan-Dec;1 doi: 10.1177/2470547017692328. Epub 2017 Apr 10.
Systematic Review of the Association Between Chronic Social Stress and Telomere Length: A Life Course Perspective. Bruna Silva Oliveira, Maria Victoria Zunzunegui, Jacklyn Quinlan, Hassan Fahmi, Mai Thanh Tu and Ricardo Oliveira Guerra. Aging Research Reviews, 2016-03-01, Volume 26, Pages 37-52. Copyright 2015 Elsevier B.V.