Effectively managing your stress level is essential to achieving a balanced, calm and productive lifestyle. It’s not uncommon to feel the pressure caused by stress when you’re trying to juggle multiple tasks at one time; projects are adding up at work, you’re trying to train staff, you’re behind on your company’s monthly budget, toddlers are screaming over toys/ trying to get your attention, you’re trying a new recipe for dinner that requires focus, you have been trying to get a run in for the last week, and you and your husband haven’t had an actual conversation in days because you’re both plugging through to-do lists. I am not sure what your life looks like, but this isn’t far off from mine. Granted, I also just gave birth to my third child so now I’m nursing throughout the day, all while maintaining my already hectic schedule. When I cannot balance everything the way I want to, this repetitive pressure that life puts in front of me can lead to stress overload. And let me just say that meditating isn’t going to do the trick for me. Instead my body actually goes into a state of analysis paralysis- I get absolutely nothing done unless I become conscious of my stress load and get a plan in motion.
Stress affects your immune system, your nervous system, and ultimately the way your mind and body function. It is impossible to deal with prolonged or chronic stress and not have health consequences. The body’s response to stress has evolved over a millennium to protect us from danger. Known as the flight-or-fight response, in the event of stress your body uses a portion of your nervous system to get the body ready for action. So if you’re in danger, the brain’s hypothalamus sends chemical signals along the nerves to the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands sit on top of each kidney, like a hat perched on a head. These glands then churn out hormones, one being cortisol, which stimulates an increase in blood pressure and blood sugar (among other responses). This response is ideal if you need to outrun a hungry lion, like we may have needed to hundreds of years ago as hunters and gatherers. But in todays world, we sit in air conditioned rooms in front of a computer screen, thrive on caffeinated drinks, and all that familiar stress response is still occurring in the body. Instead, we begin to see the stress response taking a toll on the body with the following symptoms:
- Increased Cravings: Studies link increased cortisol and cravings for sugar and fat. Cortisol binds to receptors in the brain that control food intake. Know your triggers and be conscious that you may be reaching for comfort foods when your stress is at its highest.
- Fat Storage inhibiting weight loss: “You can clearly correlate stress to weight gain”- Philip Hagen MD from Cleveland Clinic. Part of that link is due to poor eating during stress. High levels of cortisol have been linked to more deep-abdominal fat (yes, that unwanted belly fat). Go out for a walk during your lunch break as exercise can help suppress cravings!
- Increase in Blood Pressure: Cortisol can cause blood vessels to constrict in the body, leading to a spike in blood pressure. Once the stress is reduced, the blood pressure will return to its pre-stress range. This is called ‘situational stress.’ However, if your stress is prolonged, it can cause your blood pressure to run high over time. High blood pressure is the leading cause of strokes.
- Insomnia: Stress causes hyper-arousal, causing you to feel like you’re not sleepy. To me, this feels like I cannot turn my brain off when it’s time to sleep. Long term exposure to stressful events can disrupt sleep and create sleep disorders.
- Headaches: Adrenaline and cortisol are hormones released by the nerve system and can cause vascular changes that leave you with a tension headache or migraine. You can experience headaches during the stress or shortly after, when your body is in the recovery period. Stress creates tension in the muscles, making a headache feel worse.
- Decline in Memory: Too much cortisol can interfere with the brain’s ability to form new memories. Don’t try to memorize information while stressed. Go out for some fresh air first and get yourself in a less stressful state before trying to memorize any information.
- High Blood Sugar: If you already have type 2 diabetes, you may find that your blood sugar is higher when you are stressed. Focus on becoming more aware of your food choices during times of stress to help keep your cortisol levels under control. Sugar has a huge influence on cortisol levels and your sugar cravings can be controlled!
- Indigestion: Heartburn, stomach cramping, and diarrhea can all be cause by or worsened by stress. Your gastrointestinal tract is controlled by the enteric nervous system, a network of nerve cells that are the “brains” of the gut. The enteric nerve system runs from the esophagus, to the stomach, to the small and large intestines. Stress can disrupt the function and create underlying issues.
Let’s go back to this idea of stress overload and reshape our perception on what this means. I used to believe that stress overload was caused by taking on too much. This thought came to me 5 years ago before I had children and major time commitments in my life. Five years ago I was no less busy. I was working 12-14 hours a day to grow a business I started. I even worked on the weekends to ensure I could make the business successful. I was so stressed out trying to make the business work that I did not see that I was burning out. My stress level was high and that ‘control-freak’ part of me wanted to make everything perfect. Today, I am now a mother to three, wife, owner and leader in our family’s business. I am arguably more busy than I have ever been in my life. For example, yesterday I started laundry and today I am re-washing the same load for a third time because I never made it back to the washing machine to put the clothing into the dryer! Yet, I find that I am less stressed while taking on more. How am I not facing stress overload now versus five years ago? I am now under the belief that stress overload is not caused by taking on too much, but instead it is caused by not taking the time to meet my own needs with self-care so my body has the ability to handle stress effectively. Today, my lifestyle choices include self-care time. Selfcare time is small but adds up for me. Going out for morning coffee with my husband when he is in town, making time to exercise to improve my mood and energy level, spending a few hours focused on playing with my kids, getting a massage once every few weeks, and committing to a whole food, plant focused diet. These are ways I can invest in my self-care to help prevent the stress-overload feeling and burn out.