How Stress Affects Your Body, and Simple Techniques to Reduce Stress and Develop Greater Resilience
Among all the factors contributing to poor health and early death, stress is perhaps the most pernicious. In bygone days, the stress response was a lifesaving biological function, enabling us to run from predators or take down prey.
But today, we are turning on the same “lifesaving” reaction to cope with fear of public speaking, difficult bosses and traffic jams. The sheer number of stress-inducing situations that face us on a daily basis can make it difficult to turn the stress response off.
As a result, you may be marinating in corrosive stress hormones around the clock, and this can have serious consequences, from adding stubborn fat to your belly to elevating your blood pressure and triggering a heart attack.1,2
How Stress Affects Your Body
To give you a quick overview, when you experience acute stress — be it real or imagined, as your body cannot decipher the difference — your body releases stress hormones (such as cortisol) that prepare your body to either fight or flee the stressful event.
Your heart rate increases, your lungs take in more oxygen, your blood flow increases, and parts of your immune system become temporarily suppressed, which reduces your inflammatory response to pathogens and other foreign invaders.
When stress becomes chronic, your immune system becomes increasingly desensitized to cortisol, and since inflammation is partly regulated by this hormone, this decreased sensitivity heightens the inflammatory response and allows inflammation to get out of control.3
Inflammation, in turn, is a hallmark of most diseases, from diabetes to heart disease, and cancer. Elevated cortisol levels also affect your memory by causing a gradual loss of synapses in your prefrontal cortex.4
Stress may even trigger the onset of dementia. In one study,5 72 percent — nearly three out of four — Alzheimer’s patients had experienced severe emotional stress during the two years preceding their diagnosis.
Stress as a Factor in Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome
As noted in a recent article by Chris Kresser,6 stress can also be a factor in polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), a condition caused by elevated androgens, i.e. male sex hormones, which can affect a woman’s menstrual cycles, fertility, weight, and more.
This may be especially true if you:
- Undereat and overtrain to improve your physique
- Do not have cystic ovaries
- Your weight is normal or below normal and you do not struggle with insulin resistance
The article goes into far greater detail on the hormonal cascade that ultimately can lead to PCOS, but in summary, stress triggers your body to produce a number of hormones, starting with adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which stimulates your adrenal glands to produce stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline.
ACTH also triggers the production of adrenal androgen hormones, including androstenedione, which is one of the two primary androgenic hormones causing PCOS symptoms in women.
Chronic Stress Can Elevate a Woman’s Male Sex Hormones
It has been my clinical experience that insulin resistance plays a major role in PCOS, and that restriction of nonfiber carb to less than 50 grams per day can dramatically help. Nevertheless, stress also has an important role.
As noted in the featured article:
“[W]omen who are under chronic stress not only have more opportunities for elevated ACTH and thus elevated androgens, but their hormones may also start to react more severely to stressful situations.
Don’t get me wrong: there are plenty of women whose PCOS is caused by a poor diet, inadequate exercise, too many refined carbohydrates and sugars, and a generally unhealthy lifestyle.
But if you’re breaking your back trying to follow the perfect low-carb Paleo diet, going to CrossFit five to six days per week, and finding yourself gaining weight, losing your menstrual function, growing hair in weird places, developing adult acne …
[O]r simply feeling like a truck hit you every morning you wake up, it may be chronic stress causing your physical symptoms and hormonal imbalances.”
Why Stress Packs on Pounds
Weight gain and/or difficulty losing weight in general is a common problem associated with stress. What’s worse, stress-induced weight gain typically involves an increase in belly fat, which is the most dangerous fat for your body to accumulate as it increases your risk for cardiovascular disease.
Stress alters the way fat is deposited because of the specific hormones and other chemicals your body produces when you’re stressed. For example, recent research7 shows that chronic stress stimulates your body to produce betatrophin — a protein that blocks an enzyme that breaks down body fat.
As reported by the Epoch Times:8
” … [M]ouse models experiencing metabolic stress produced significantly more betatrophin, and their normal fat-burning processes slowed down markedly.
Such observations are significant because they shed new light on the biological mechanisms linking stress, betatrophin, and fat metabolism … The results provide experimental evidence that stress makes it harder to break down body fat.”
Developing Resilience May Lessen the Impact of Stress
Clearly, stress is an inescapable part of life — but it’s important to understand that it is how you deal with it that will determine whether it will translate into health problems later on. As noted in a recent article about stress in The New York Times,9 the stress reaction should dissipate as quickly as possible after the perceived danger has passed.
The scientific term for this is resilience — “the ability of your body to rapidly return to normal, both physically and emotionally, after a stressful event.” Some people are naturally more resilient than others, and researchers have long pondered the reasons why.
One speculation is that people who are more resilient have learned to listen to their body. In one experiment, elite adventure athletes and Special Forces soldiers were placed in a brain scanning machine while wearing a face mask that made it difficult to breathe once the researcher pressed a button.
What they discovered was that these people were able to closely monitor the signals from their body indicating rising panic, and suppress their physical response. Quite simply, they were acutely aware of their biological stress response, but didn’t overreact.
The same test was later administered on “normal” people, who had first completed a questionnaire to gauge their self-perceived resilience. Those whose scores suggested high resilience had brain activity very similar to the former group — the soldiers and elite athletes.
Those with low resilience scores on the other hand, reacted in the converse way. As reported by The New York Times:
“As their face masks threatened to close, they displayed surprisingly little activity in those portions of the brain that monitor signals from the body. And then, when breathing did grow difficult, they showed high activation in parts of the brain that increase physiological arousal.
In effect, they paid little attention to what was happening inside their bodies as they waited for breathing to become difficult — and then overreacted when the threat occurred.
Such brain responses would undermine resilience, the scientists concluded, by making it more difficult for the body to return to a calm state … Improving internal communications with our bodies may be as simple as spending a few minutes each day in focused breathing, Dr. Haase said.
Quietly pay attention to inhaling and exhaling without otherwise reacting, she said. Over time, this exercise should ‘teach you to have a change in breathing when anxious but be less attached to that reaction,’ Dr. Haase said, ‘which may help to improve your reaction in a stressful situation.'”
There are many breathing techniques out there — virtually all of which can help you get in touch with your body and soothe your mind. One of my personal favorites is the 4-7-8 breathing exercise taught by Dr. Andrew Weil,10 who recommends using it “whenever anything upsetting happens — before you react,” and “whenever you are aware of internal tension.” I learned it several years ago when I attended one of his presentations at Expo West in California.
The key to this exercise is to remember the numbers 4, 7 and 8. It’s not important to focus on how much time you spend in each phase of the breathing activity, but rather that you get the ratio correct.
You can do this exercise as frequently as you want throughout the day, but it’s recommended you don’t do more than four full breaths during the first month or so of practice. Later you may work your way up to eight full breath cycles at a time. If you commit to it, I believe you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how quickly and easily it can center and relax you. Here’s how it’s done:
- Sit up straight and place the tip of your tongue up against the back of your front teeth. Keep it there through the entire breathing process
- Breathe in silently through your nose to the count of 4
- Hold your breath to the count of 7
- Exhale through your mouth to the count of 8, making an audible “whoosh” sound. That completes one full breath
- Repeat the cycle another three times, for a total of 4 breaths (after the first month, you can work your way up to a total of 8 breaths per session)
Exercises to Counteract Breathing-Induced Stress
Besides making you more aware of your physical or internal state, breathing exercises can also help counteract breathing-induced stress. If you’re chronically stressed, and have poor posture to boot, you’re likely apt to breathe high in your chest, and this kind of breathing can actually trigger the stress response, or keep you locked in it. As noted in a related CNN Health article:11
“When you feel tense and anxious, the sympathetic fight-or-flight aspect of your nervous system turns on, quickening your breathing and increasing your heart rate, blood pressure and stress hormone production.
Uncontrolled, rapid, chest-oriented respiration feeds your fight-or-flight response and can actually initiate your sympathetic nervous system — even if no other stress factors are present — locking you in a state of breathing-induced stress.”
In this article, Dana Santas, a yoga trainer for a number of different athletic teams, offers the following two breathing exercises:
- Turn sighs of frustration into exhales of relief. “[W]hen you find yourself sighing in frustration, take the cue from your autonomic nervous system to turn those sighs into exhales of relief. It’s a simple way to tap your parasympathetic nervous system and avoid boiling over.”
For this exercise, inhale through your nose for a count of 5, and exhale as if you’re sighing with relief, out of your mouth, for a count of 7 (or longer). Repeat for at least 90 seconds.
- Breathe away tension. Stress-induced breathing reduces the function of your diaphragm and reinforces poor posture, which in turn can lead to pain, loss of mobility and migraines. Proper breathing can help restore the function of your diaphragm, improve posture, and reduce pain.
For this exercise, lie on your back or sit in a chair. Relax your shoulders and place your hands on the lower part of your ribs. As you breathe in, feel your ribs expanding outward, moving your hands further away from each other. When exhaling, engage and squeeze your core muscles to completely empty your lungs. Pause there for a moment before your next inhale.
Besides breathing exercises, there are many other helpful stress management tools. Another favorite is the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT). It’s an energy psychology tool that can help reprogram your body’s reactions to everyday stress, thereby reducing your chances of developing adverse health effects.
It’s similar to acupuncture, which is based on the concept that a vital energy flows through your body along invisible pathways known as meridians. EFT stimulates different energy meridian points in your body by tapping them with your fingertips, while simultaneously using custom-made verbal affirmations. This can be done alone or under the supervision of a qualified therapist.12
By doing so, you reprogram the way your body responds to emotional stressors. Since these stressors are usually connected to physical problems, many people’s diseases and other symptoms can improve or disappear as well.
For a demonstration, please see the video above, featuring EFT practitioner Julie Schiffman. For serious or deep-seated emotional problems, I recommend seeing an experienced EFT therapist, as there is a significant art to the process that requires a high level of sophistication if serious problems are to be successfully treated.
Other Stress Management Techniques
Stress is so widespread as to be “pandemic” in today’s modern world, but suffering ill effects from stress is not an inevitable fact. A lot depends on how you respond to these day-to-day stresses. And as you learn how to effectively decrease your stress level, your health will improve as well.
There are many different stress reduction techniques. The key is to find out what works best for you, and stick to a daily stress-reduction program.
One key strategy is to make sure you get adequate sleep, as sleep deprivation dramatically impairs your body’s ability to handle stress and is yet another risk factor for heart attack. Besides that, other stress management approaches include the following:
|Regular physical activity
|Meditation: Taking even 10 minutes to sit quietly, such as during work breaks, can help decrease your feelings of stress and anxiety
|Yoga: Health benefits from regular yoga practice have been shown to decrease stress, improve sleep and immune function, and reduce food cravings, among other things
|Laughter and levity
|Spend time in nature
|Schedule time to have fun