In one form or another, stress is all around us every day. (I know some of you right now are saying “No kidding! I live and breathe stress!”) But what is stress, and what triggers it? Answer those questions, and you’re on your way to regaining control over it.
Physiologically, stress is the body’s reaction to circumstances that could pose risk. When the stress hormone cortisol is released, muscles tense in preparation for fast defensive movement. Reflexes and strength temporarily increase. This is a useful effect in a situation that really does present actual danger. But sometimes the body interprets ordinary, everyday events as threats. When this happens, a person’s cortisol levels can become chronically elevated. This leads to a huge range of potentially serious health issues including weight gain, blood sugar imbalances, pain, and heart problems.
It wouldn’t be unusual for you to think of stress as those nagging, uncomfortable thoughts that can make you nervous or even keep you up at night. Anxiety and a mind that won’t settle down are certainly common manifestations of stress in this success-driven world. But stress comes in all shapes and sizes, and sometimes it’s created by unexpected sources.
It’s crucial that we learn to recognize the stressors in our lives—even the surprising and unexpected ones—in order to minimize the long-term damage too much cortisol can wreak. In this and the next couple of articles, we’ll take a closer look at the many types of stress, the imbalances they can cause in the body, and, best of all, what we can do to combat them effectively, proactively, and as naturally as possible.
Stress #1: Environment
Depending on where you live, the very air you breathe can become a major source of stress on your body. At this time of year, pollen, weeds, and mold plague allergy-prone individuals with all types of annoying, uncomfortable symptoms. And all year long, smog, pollution, mold, and dust also fall into the category of annoyances and/or stressors that commonly affect the body’s respiratory and immune systems.
Your Stress-Buster: You can’t control what’s in the air everywhere, but you can take steps to turn Home Sweet Home into a safe-breathing zone. Ensure that your home is clean and free of animal dander and dust-collecting clutter. Lift the burden of airborne pollutants from your lungs by running a HEPA air filter regularly. Use special pillow and mattress covers to ensure that your bed is allergen free. Frequently irrigate your nasal passages with a saline solution to flush out irritants that might otherwise settle into sinuses and lungs.
Stress #2: Physical/Positional
Ever experience pain in your body, maybe even right now? Most of us have at one time or another. Then think—do you have any significant physical stress in your life, any activity that habitually overuses or strains one part of your body? Perhaps the cause of your pain is just that simple.
One common example of physical (structural) stress that leads to pain is poor posture and overuse of the right arm while working on a computer with a mouse. Sufferers of this type of pain may notice that localized discomfort morphs into stress on the entire body, increasing the perception of other pain but also leading to emotional effects as the ability to stick to the daily routine suffers. Traumas such as accidents, falls, or surgery are other common sources of structural stress.
Your Stress-Buster: Clearly you should see your doctor when you suffer recurring pain. But don’t stop there. Also seek out holistic practitioners (acupuncturists, chiropractors, massage therapists, etc.) to experience natural relief. For example, a practitioner trained in Chinese medicine can apply ancient, proven techniques that help restore the flow of qi, or natural energy, throughout the body, minimizing pain and optimizing a sense of wellbeing.
Take a moment now to reflect on your own environmental and physical stress exposures. Have you already been able to pinpoint some details you can change to reduce your body’s stress burden? You may not be able to fix all the ills of the world, but you can clean out that dusty closet or order that ergonomically correct office chair. That is, take steps to fix the effect of stress on you. I guarantee you’ll be glad you did.
And remember, your environment and physical structure constitute just two types of stress. Next time I’ll discuss two more causes—and solutions to help drive your cortisol levels back to where they should be.