We all know what it feels like to be under stress. Health and financial problems, relationship issues — even sitting in traffic — can ramp up frustration and anxiety. It’s normal to feel stress, but it’s bad for your health to let it overwhelm you or continue for a prolonged period of time.
Stress is the body’s natural reaction to a threatening situation. Whether the situation is big (like a threat to your life) or small (such as needing to pass a test or to meet a deadline at work), the body’s sympathetic nervous system will react by releasing a flood of hormones that raise your heart rate, increase your blood pressure, stop your digestive system and tighten your muscles — all fueling you with the energy you need to address the problem. It’s a process that once kept humans safe from predators, preparing you for “fight or flight.”
But stress can also be dangerous. Short-lived, acute stress (such as uncontrolled anger) can cause heart attacks. Chronic stress — the type that eats away at you over an indefinite period of time — can exacerbate existing health problems and even create new ones. This type of stress prevents the body’s parasympathetic nervous system from doing its job by helping you to relax once the threat is over.
But if your heart rate and blood pressure remain high, it can lead to chronic health problems such as heart disease. It can also make it tougher for your body to fight off illnesses and infections. Further complicating matters, many people turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms when they feel stressed, such as smoking, binge eating (or eating so-called “comfort foods” that are high in sugar and fat) or failing to exercise because they feel exhausted or depressed.
The key is to coax the parasympathetic nervous system back into action, says Ron Breazeale, PhD, executive director of Psychological and Educational Services in Portland, ME. “You can turn on the parasympathetic nervous system by taking a slow, deep breath, or refocusing on something else,” he says. “Bring your breathing down to a relaxed state. It will turn on your digestive system and bring your heart rate down.”
Meditation, mindfulness, exercise and cognitive behavioral therapy can also be used to reactivate the parasympathetic system and achieve the more relaxed state that allows the body to recover from stress, says Dr. Breazeale.
“Getting people to recognize their feelings is one of the first steps,” he says. “Find ways to vent or discharge those feelings. And make sure to get enough sleep.”
Don’t have time to exercise or the patience to meditate? “Practice slow, deep breathing throughout the day,” he says. “You don’t have to take an hour to do yoga if you don’t have time for that. Just take a few slow, deep breaths. And relax.”