Ever wondered what stress does to you?
Here’s a case study of how stress affects every system in your body. You likely know someone in the same boat, or maybe it describes you. I’ve also added three science-based relaxation tips my patients find helpful.
The Effects of Stress on The Body
Sharon is on her way to work. She overslept and rushed out of the door without eating. Then she ran back for her briefcase. This means she missed the 7:18 bus that would get her to the 8:12 train. She arrives at the office at 9:14 instead of 9:00. Her new supervisor lectures her about being on time.
When Sharon gets to her desk, she groans. Her coffee cup got knocked over and now the report due at noon is a mess. Sharon has a 9:30 meeting with all the big bosses but she now has to reprint all the entire 128-page client report. She enters the meeting twenty minutes late.
This is just the start of her day.
Sharon at the doctor’s:
Sharon goes to the doctor’s because she has trouble sleeping. She has headaches that feel like giant rubber bands pressing into her head. Her over-the-counter headache pills give her heartburn.
Sharon’s been gaining weight. Sometimes she has constipation or at other times, diarrhea. Her periods are painful and irregular. Her doctor writes out prescriptions while she describes her symptoms.
The doctor tells Sharon her blood pressure is too high. He’s sending her for a test. He prescribes her a new headache pill, two kinds of stomach pills, and a sleeping pill. He also tells her to get a blood test for diabetes. The doctor leaves.
Sharon stares at the prescriptions. She doesn’t understand what’s wrong with her. Sharon doesn’t have anyone who can answer her questions.
Do You Know Someone Who is Stressed?
All of Sharon’s problems could be caused by chronic stress. The long list of prescriptions the doctor gave her likely only address the individual symptoms without solving the causes of the problems. Stress causes hormone imbalance. That leads to muscle tension, a common cause of headaches. Stress also reduces melatonin which you need to sleep well.
Stress also causes your heart to pump harder and thickens your blood vessels. Both cause high blood pressure. All of this can also weakening your immune system and make you more likely to get sick.
People who are stressed often binge on sweets and starches, a key cause of weight gain. But stress itself can make you gain weight. Chronic stress affects every system your body.
Sharon’s story is common. You probably know people who have to deal with as much stress as she does.
Relaxation Techniques For Stress
Here are some quick and powerful ways to feel relieve stress. Write a post-it note reminder to remind yourself to try one of these techniques each day.
When Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson studied Tibetan monks, he was astonished. Benson realized sometimes Tibetan Buddhist meditation techniques can help patients even more than heart surgery.
When we’re stressed, we tend to have shallow breaths. We use only the top part of your lungs. This leaves stale air trapped at the bottom of our lungs. We also tend to hold our breath when we concentrate. This means we lack oxygen, become drowsy and confused, and experience muscle fatigue.
Close your eyes. Breathe in slowly. Feel your chest expand. Then breathe out slowly for twice as long as it took you to breathe in. Repeat for as many minutes as you have.
2. Guided imagery
This is usually done with a recording or a guide who talks you through the exercise. Here’s an example of taste imagery. Get someone to read it to you while you sit in a comfy chair with your eyes closed.
Imagine you’re in a kitchen. Food is cooking quietly on the stove. You go over to the refrigerator and take out a plump, juicy lemon. You hold it in your hand, feeling the coolness. You put it close to your nose and get a faint aroma of lemon through the intact peel. You go over to the counter and take out a cutting board. With a knife you cut the lemon in half. Some of the juice spurts out and the aroma of lemon is strong. You see the beads of juice on the cut surface. Then you cut each half again so the lemon is in quarters. You notice where a seed has been cut through. You pick up one of the quarters and hold it close to your nose and appreciate the lemony smell.
Are you salivating yet? This is an example of how a mere image in your mind can change your body function. There is no real lemon there, but most people will salivate as if there were.
3. Gratitude meditation
Gratitude meditation is easy. As you fall asleep each night, think about five things you are grateful for. Combine this with deep breaths. Be prepared to be happier over time.
Chew on this
Most of us know that stress isn’t healthy, but being stressed causes more damage than we realize. Want to live longer? Relax!
Want a tip you can use right now? Here’s a fun way to exercise. Laughing causes some of the same physiological reactions in your body as exercise. Grab a Dilbert comic. Look up your favorite comedy act on You Tube. Laugh away!
What else do you do to relax? Share your tips in the comments!