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Don’t let stress get the best of you!

Don't Let Stress Get the Best of You!

Did you know your body has an alarm system? It’s called the amygdala, an area of the brain involved in emotional processing. When you experience a perceived threat, like a vicious dog or a speeding, oncoming car, the amygdala sends an alarm signal to a part of the brain called the hypothalamus. Sometimes called “the brain’s command center,” the hypothalamus then sends a message to your adrenal glands to release the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline speeds up your heart rate, raises your blood pressure, and boosts your energy. Cortisol, the “stress hormone”, increases your blood sugar and enhances your brain’s use of glucose. This is the fight-or-flight response that allows you to react swiftly when confronted with an immediate danger, such as that vicious dog or oncoming car. Unfortunately, the more insidious dangers of modern life can trigger the same response and neither fighting nor fleeing will help.

Once a perceived threat has passed, hormones return to typical levels and your heart rate and blood pressure drop back to typical levels. But what if the threat persists? What if your stress response never deactivates? Prolonged exposure to stress can disrupt almost all the body's processes. This can result in a variety of symptoms including:

Physical SymptomsEmotional/Mental Symptoms
Heartburn, constipation, or diarrheaAnxiety
Muscle tension and painMemory problems
High blood pressureDifficulty concentrating
Fatigue and sleep issuesRacing thoughts
Changes in your weightImpatience and irritability
Panic attacksA sense of dread
SweatingFeeling overwhelmed
Shortness of breathIrritability
Blurred eyesight or sore eyes 
Fainting or dizziness 
Hives or itchy skin 
Changes in the menstrual cycle 

Damage over time

Whether from financial strain, an unhappy relationship, or a toxic work situation, lasting stress has been linked to a wide range of unhealthy changes in your body, such as:

  • Increased glucose production
  • Decreased insulin production
  • Inflammation of the arterial walls
  • Greater percentage of body fat
  • Elevated blood pressure

All these changes are risk factors for metabolic syndrome, pre-diabetes and diabetes, atherosclerosis, heart disease, and stroke. Moreover, many of us don’t take the best care of ourselves when we are under pressure. We are more likely to skip the gym and we may attempt to self-medicate with food, alcohol, or tobacco. Scientists suspect that acute, chronic stress is associated with increased inflammation in the body and a tendency to focus on negative information, which of course, exacerbates the stress. In other words, chronic stress can feed on itself and worsen over time!

Stress Reduction Tips

April is Stress Awareness Month, so it’s a perfect time to take steps to recognize the level of stress you may have in your life. And while it’s not possible to live a totally stress-free life, there are things you can do to reduce your day-to-day stress:

  • Exercise. In addition to helping you stay strong and control your weight, exercise raises the production of endorphins, for a more positive outlook.
  • Relax. Yes, that’s easier said than done, but you can apply the same will power you tap into to hit the gym to making yourself take a bubble bath or schedule a massage.
  • Laugh. Laughter may not be the BEST medicine, as the cliché purports, but it’s a great stress reducer. Hang out with a funny friend or watch a comedy on TV. Laughter enhances your oxygen intake and promotes the secretion of endorphins and immune system-boosting neuropeptides.
  • Explore mindfulness. Try yoga, meditation, tai chi, deep breathing, or visualization. Over time, these practices can become second nature and help you become more serene and resilient.
  • Talk it out with a friend or family member who’s a good listener. For some of us, simply venting to someone we trust can help reduce stress.
  • Learn to say no. Stop taking on more than you can manage. If you’re maxed out on time and commitments, say so.
  • Take a news break. Consider unplugging from the media for a while. Reduce your consumption of current events to a single news source for a limited time each day and cut out the rest of the noise.
  • Eat well. You know the drill – Fill up on fruits, vegetables, healthy carbohydrates, fatty fish, and lean meats, and go easy on the sugar, alcohol, and caffeine.
  • Get creative. Do you have a hobby you haven’t had time for lately? Get back to it or start a new one. Join a choir. Take up bridge. Learn to paint or play the piano. Find a past time that will distract you from your worries and “take you out of yourself.”
  • Get out in nature. Hike, stroll, garden, go fishing, or even just sit on the beach and feel the sunshine and wind on your face. (Don’t forget to wear sunscreen!)
  • Get some sleep. Another one that’s often easier said than done! You can find plenty of sleep tips online, from creating the right environment for sleep to reinforcing your circadian rhythm. Talk to your healthcare provider about natural sleep supplements like melatonin, ginkgo biloba and valerian root, glycine and L-theanine, and magnesium. For tips to help you sleep better this summer, click here.

All the above recommendations may help with stress reduction– and they definitely can’t hurt. Still, modern life can be overwhelming, and you may need to have a serious conversation with yourself about the stressors in your life. Is it time to change jobs or even careers? When was the last time you had a vacation? Would you be happier making a little less money in a less demanding job? Are you holding on to a toxic relationship? Having trouble letting go of a painful memory or forgiving yourself for a past mistake? Don’t hesitate to seek out a spiritual advisor, support group, career counselor, or psychologist if you could use some support and constructive advice.


This article appeared in the April 2024 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter.

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