Stress is a natural reaction in humans and animals.
The key word is reaction. Each person reacts differently to that which they perceive as stress. Some people are very sensitive to changes in the energy around them. What is a grievous stressor to one person might not bother another person at all.
What is Stress?
Psychologist Richard Lazarus refers to stress as any event in which environmental demands, internal demands, or both tax or exceed an individual’s adaptive resources. If your life seems calm and normal you might think your psychological stress is low, but dieting, over exercising, insomnia, infections, poor dental hygiene, environmental toxins, and even the political situation can be causing you subconscious stress.
Your body can handle acute or short-term stress quite well and recover from it, but you are not built to handle the chronic, unrelenting stress so rampant in our society today.
Dr. Peter Levine said that our stress response is designed to last about forty-five seconds, not twenty-four hours or day after day. Constant stress causes the body to be “turned on” all the time, and not in a good way.
Fight, Flight or Freeze
The sympathetic nervous system, which stimulates bodily functions, goes haywire and the adrenal system gets stuck in the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. These systems stay turned on like a car alarm constantly blaring in the background.
The adrenal glands are small, triangular endocrine glands that sit on top of the kidneys waiting patiently to be called to duty. Their major role is to release hormones like cortisol and adrenaline in response to stress.
Stress activates or depresses several functions in the body. Digestion is halted. The hypothalamus gland signals the adrenal system, and the sympathetic nervous system shoots impulses through the body. The heart beats faster, muscles tense, eyes dilate, and the mouth gets dry. This reaction has been named the fight or flight response.
The body can’t tell the difference between being chased by a tiger or getting stuck in traffic; it just senses stress and kicks into gear.
Beyond fight and flight there is a third reaction to stress: freeze. Your body can stop you right in your tracks like a deer in the headlights. An overwhelming trauma can instantly stun you with a wave of hopelessness when it appears you have no chance for conquest or escape. Your blood pressure quickly drops when you freeze, and you can fall or faint. The parasympathetic branch of the nervous system, which calms you down to rest and digest, clamps down and takes over with the freeze response.
Your Digestive System at a Stand Still
Any way your body deals with stress, whether it be fight, flight, or freeze, halts your digestive system. Stress can make you sick and fat, and the food you eat might be doing no good for you at all.
Stress can be real and tangible or imagined. Imagined stress causes worry. Your body reacts to worry in the same way it does to actual stressful situations.
Good vs Bad Stress
There is good stress and bad stress. Good stress, called eustress, is caused by things like buying a new house, getting married, or going to a party. You process good stress in the same way as the bad stress I discussed above.
What about guilt? Ever beat yourself up for how you look or what you eat? Ever compare yourself to others and feel ugly? Thinking negatively about your appearance, eating patterns, or weight adds an additional load of stress and sends you scurrying for a glass of wine or a jumbo order of nachos.
Conditions in our environment can be stressful on the body too, such as the changing of the seasons. Heat and cold can create stress, whether you’re indoors or out.
The bottom line is this; you will have stress in your life. How you deal with it is absolutely essential to your health. Often, people reach for unhealthy foods to combat stress. This is likely one of the worst things to do.
Sure, in the short term, it’s not all that bad. But any behavior repeated over and over becomes a habit. Some habits are good, others are not so good.
Avoid the habit of “stuffing” your stress with food. Rather, look for positive habits to form, such as meditation, exercise and movement to reduce your stress.
Your body will thank you for this.