Everyone is familiar with stress in some shape or form. Most Americans indicate they have experienced moderate to high levels of chronic stress but didn’t know what to do about it. Let’s explore what our bodies do in the face of stress and how we can minimize the harmful effects.
Your body has a complex mechanism for handling stress and relaxation. Historically, stressful situations were intense and short lived–called the “fight/flight” or “sympathetic” response. When you are relaxed and safe, your body is in a “parasympathetic” mode so you can “rest and digest.” If your body feels stressed or threatened, you immediately go into a sympathetic mode. Your body starts a domino effect of signaling that ends with symptoms of fatigue, weight gain, inflammation, pain and even disease. With modern day stressors, such as work, relationships, health, finances, childcare, etc., we can’t just physically fight or run away (even though we may want to sometimes); and with long-term stress, your body works on overdrive and is unable to turn off these stress signals.
Prolonged stress can potentially lead to disease and most certainly affects your wellness on a daily basis. After a long period of stress, you often catch colds more easily and recover more slowly. Your body’s immune system is less equipped to put up a fight. Stress also triggers inflammation which leads to increased pain and risk for multiple chronic diseases including cancer. Although there is no research directly linking cancer and work-related stress, there are positive links for increased risk of mortality and worsening tumor prognosis correlated with prolonged stress response.
There are healthy – and unhealthy – ways to deal with stress. Self-medication, alcohol and drug use, smoking and over-eating are not the proper answer. Here are some suggestions on how to replace negative coping habits.
First and foremost, diet. According to the Okinawa Centerian Study, a diet low in calories, high in healthy fats (fish, nuts, seeds), and high in fresh fruits and vegetables, coupled with an active and low stress lifestyle, has shown significant increases in life expectancy and quality of life.
Never stop exercising. Start yoga, pilates, barre, jogging, hiking, resistance training, or whatever inspires you! Recent studies have shown the importance of exercise in breast cancer patients. The amount of exercise has a direct correlation to increased protection against cancer reoccurrence risk. So the more you exercise, the more you decrease the risk of cancer reoccurrence.
Also, maintaining a daily practice in meditation or prayer cultivates your spiritual side and has even been shown to reduce inflammation. Other techniques that decrease stress are mindfulness/visualization, hypnotherapy or hypnomeditation, deep breathing exercises every hour, tai chi, and chi gong.
Stress is unavoidable and will always be in your life. Even low levels of stress can increase risk of disease and shorten life expectancy. However, your health, happiness and longevity will rest heavily upon the daily choices you make to address your stress.
Dr. Sonja Fung is a naturopathic primary care doctor at Live Well Clinic in La Quinta. For more information about their integrative clinic, go to www.livewellclinic.org or call 760-771-5970. Editorial references available upon request.