Chronic Stress - Are You Overlooking This Toxin?

stress, stress response, managing stress, chronic stress

Chronic stress is toxic to your body. Just like the toxins you're exposed to from the products you use.

And just like external sources of toxins, this internal source of toxin exposure can damage every system in your body, including your brain.

This post won't cover everything you need to know about stress. Instead, it's meant as an introduction to the effects of stress on your health. And to remind you that leading a less toxic life includes finding positive ways to cope with and react to the stressors in your world.

A good resource for more in-depth info can be found here.

What Is Stress

According to Psychology Today "Stress is simply a reaction to a stimulus that disturbs our physical or mental equilibrium. In other words, it's an omnipresent part of life. A stressful event can trigger the “fight-or-flight” response, causing hormones like adrenaline to surge through the body."

Known as “acute stress,” these short-term stress reactions are part of early human's survival package. They can also help you when you find yourself in a dark alley and hear footsteps behind you. In other words, this is good stress. 

However, if you have a lot of stress in your life and you haven't learned to manage it, your stress response can be constantly activated. That's NOT good. This becomes clear when you look at what happens in your body when it responds to stress.

The Stress Response

When you’re faced with a stressful situation your body responds with a cascade of changes in your nervous, cardiovascular, endocrine, and immune systems.

  • Stress hormones are released to make energy stores available for the body’s immediate use. (stress hormones—dopamine, epinephrine (also known as adrenaline), norepinephrine (noradrenaline), and cortisol.
  • Energy is diverted to the skeletal muscles and the brain. by increasing blood pressure levels and contracting certain blood vessels while dilating others.
  • Cells of the immune system are also activated and migrate to “battle stations” - tissues that are most likely to suffer damage during physical confrontation.
  •  Less critical activities, like digestion are suspended.

Effects Of Chronic Stress On Your Body

Now, think about this reaction occurring over and over again in your body. Your hormone communication system, which is normally tightly regulated, gets out of whack. Levels of some hormones are higher than they should be and others are too low.

Your heart is working harder, your blood pressure is high, you aren't digesting your food efficiently and your mind gets foggy.

Plus, the parts of your body responsible for responding to stress have other functions. The hormones released during your body's reaction to stress direct everything from your immune system to your cardiovascular system to your behavioral system.

But, if your body is busy dealing with stress, it's not dealing efficiently with these other functions. It's no wonder that chronic stress is linked to so many health problems.

For example:

  • Chronic stress causes excess release of the hormones cortisol and adrenaline. This can suppress your immune system. When you’re stressed it’s much easier to catch a cold and wounds heal slower.

  • Too much cortisol circulating in your body can cause weight gain, osteoporosis, digestive problems, hormone imbalances, cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.
  • Chronic stress creates free radicals that can damage your body.
  • Chronic stress changes your brain’s function and even its structure down to the level of your DNA. This can lead to depression and anxiety and memory problems.
  • It can also cause ulcers, elevate blood sugar, and eventually lead to the death of certain brain cells.
  • Stress hormones are also linked to rheumatoid arthritis. The hormone prolactin, released by your pituitary gland in response to stress, triggers cells that cause swelling in joints.
  • Chronic stress also means your cardiovascular system is constantly stimulated and your blood pressure is elevated. This places excessive demands on your heart leading to heart disease. And severe stress is one of the most potent risk factors for stroke.
  • And the damage adds up. Chronic stress causes ‘wear and tear’ on your body's systems over time. Chronic stress is particularly dangerous as you get older because the damage accumulates and because of the gradual loss of immune function that happens as you get older.

You Can Become Overly Sensitive To Stress

You know the familiar saying “That what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”? Well, according to some psychologists that’s a bunch of bull.

Apparently, past experience with stress DOES affect your ability to deal with current stress, but not in a good way. Dealing with a lot of stressful events in your lifetime may make you less resilient and more sensitive to future sources of stress.

Once that happens, even small aggravations can trigger a cascade of chemical reactions in your brain and body that attack you from within.

What’s especially dangerous about this is that you may not think you’re getting stressed over life’s little aggravations, but your brain is treating it as though your life were on the line.

By responding to the stress of everyday life with the same surge of biochemicals released during major threats, your body is slowly killing itself.

Managing Stress

So, as part of living a less toxic life, you need to find a way to cope with and manage stressful situations. Think of it as deactivating the stress response so that your body isn't constantly under attack from chronic stress.

Now, there's no one size fits all approach to managing stress. You really have to find some coping techniques that work for you. 

Things like meditation, yoga and gardening are options. The key is to make time to regularly practice whatever techniques work best for you.

Even though you have to experiment to find what works best for you, there are some general guidelines you can follow to help you manage stress.

1. Keep A Positive Outlook

Psychologists have found that people with positive attitudes tend to handle stress better than negative people. But how exactly are you supposed to turn that frown upside down?

If you’re way to entrenched in the negative, telling yourself to think positively isn’t very helpful is it? And maintaining a positive attitude when you’re faced with stressful situations is way more difficult than it sounds.

Of course, well-meaning friends and family offer the old platitude “Count Your Blessings”. Does that really ever help? And when things seem really bleak it’s hard to uncover your blessings.

So, here’s a little something I’ve come up with to replace negative thoughts with positive ones. Go on a hunt for the joy nuggets in your day. Not your life, just your day.

For example, let’s say your commute to work is no picnic. Besides heavy traffic you have 10 stoplights to maneuver through. And today, 6 of them are green when you approach – Joy Nugget! Or maybe you get to the office and find out your most annoying co-worker took the day off. Again - Joy Nugget!

The joy nuggets in my day often have to do with nature and animals. Rubbing a dog's belly, catching a whiff of spring blossom scented air or a glimpse of a bear bounding through the woods bring positivity to my day.

What you’ll find when you use this technique is that gradually, instead of dwelling on the negative things in your day, you’re focused on the positive. This leads to an overall positive attitude.

2. Get Moving

The key to this part is finding a physical activity that you enjoy, Yeah, you heard me right. You should enjoy it and it should not be another source of stress.

If you hate yoga, don't do it just because you know it will be good for you. There are lots of physical activities that would benefit you. But you have to enjoy doing it to make it a lifetime habit.

And don’t set a bunch of fitness goals. Just move. It could be a half hour of gardening every day, a stroll around your neighborhood or a bike ride. Find an activity that calms and refreshes you.

3. Take a Proactive Approach

According to psychologist Robert Epstein, Ph.D "If you wait until you're feeling stressed before you employ some technique for managing stress, it's already too late. So, adopt coping strategies that you can do every day.

To do this you need to become aware of what calms you best. So, try different things that you can incorporate into your daily routine.

Examples are setting aside time to play with your dog, with no distractions. Finding a hobby that focuses your attention.

Or doing an activity that lets your mind wander. It’s no surprise why adult coloring books are so popular.

Meditation is also a popular coping strategy.

My favorite coping strategy is what I call walking meditation. Since I find it hard to sit still to meditate, I do it during my long walks every day.

I don’t use headphones, I don’t carry a cell phone and I walk alone. I let my thoughts wander wherever they want to go. Whether it’s obsessing over a problem, organizing my next article or flitting from silly thought to silly thought.

I’m always calmer and more focused when my walk is over. And usually some important insight has popped into my head because my subconscious mind could break through.

4. Protect Yourself From Free Radicals

It's just a quirky little fact of life that stress usually turns us to eating unhealthy foods (aka comfort foods). Because this is when your body needs nourishing antioxidant-rich foods the most.

Why? Because stress creates free radicals, which are toxic to your body. 

Your body has an antioxidant defense system designed to battle free radicals. However, sometimes your body produces more free radicals than it can handle because of exposure to too many environmental toxins, like chronic stress.

This imbalance, caused by too many free radicals running rampant through your body, creates oxidative stress. And oxidative stress is linked to many severe diseases

You can combat oxidative stress by increasing your antioxidant levels. Green tea, dark chocolate, walnuts, kale, red cabbage, beets and dried fruit like apples, dates and mangos are great antioxidant rich options to add to your diet. Also, consider starting your day with my Ultimate Antioxidant Breakfast.

Techniques To Use During Stressful Situations

During really stressful situations you may need to supplement your coping strategies. Here are a few useful techniques.

  • Take a huge breath in. Hold it for three to four seconds. Then let it out very slowly. As you blow out, blow out all the tension in your body.
  • Close your eyes and imagine your happy place.

The president of the American Institute of Stress suggests these five stress busting tricks.

  • Curl your toes against the soles of your feet as hard as you can for 15 seconds, then relax them. Progressively tense and relax the muscles in your legs, stomach, back, shoulders, neck.
  • Visualize lying on a beach, listening to waves coming in and feeling the warm sun and gentle breezes on your back. Or picture yourself in whatever situation makes you happiest.
  • Set aside 20 to 30 minutes a day to do anything you want—even nothing.
  • Take a brisk walk.
  • Keep a music player handy and loaded with relaxing, enjoyable music.

Chronic stress chips away at your immune system, opening the way to cancer, infection, and disease. The hormones released during stress reactions eat at your digestive tract and lungs, promoting ulcers and asthma. And they may weaken your heart, leading to strokes and heart disease.

Maintaining a positive attitude, adopting a physical activity that you enjoy and taking a proactive approach can reduce the toxic burden that chronic stress puts on your body.

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