I am not a medical professional, so this blog is not intended to be any sort of diagnosis, treatment, or medical recommendation. However, as a mental health professional, I have been fortunate to learn how stress can impact the body from a brain perspective. Additionally, I am a human being who leads a very busy and stressful life, and I have experienced many different physiological symptoms that I can associate with stress.
Stress has impacted my body and mind in many different ways, sometimes to the point of turning to Google or WebMD to rule out any potentially life-threatening conditions. (Obviously stress can also increase anxiety and impact one's ability to think rationally and objectively).
Some common and uncommon physiological symptoms I have personally correlated with stress:
*Body tension and headaches
*Skin problems (dryness, acne)
*Dizziness or lightheadedness
**Remember, this is not a medical article. Believing that these symptoms for me have been correlated with stress are my own beliefs about my experiences, based on the knowledge I have about the brain, and about my own body and how it responds to stress. However, countless research studies have also correlated the above symptoms with stress.
How do I know these symptoms are stress-related for me? Because I work hard to be in-tune with my body, and I make a lot of effort to take care of my body the best I can. A part if this is tracking (mentally and in a journal) my day to day functioning in relation to what is going on in my life. This includes paying attention to my diet, activity levels, sleep quality, workload, and other aspects of functioning including relationships and hobbies. Additionally, I listen to my body and I pay attention to how I feel based on the choices I make and the things I experience. For example, I know exactly how I will feel if I do not get enough sleep; I know how I will feel if I drink milk, or eat really greasy foods; I also know what happens if I am not managing my stress well (see above symptoms).
So why do we experience stress in our bodies? The human brain is a fascinating and incredible organ. It is designed to protect you and maintain "homeostasis" or internal stability, so that your body can function the way it needs to for survival. Thus, when you are faced with any type of threat, challenge, or difficult situation, your brain will have a response. Though brain research is an ever changing field of study, it is believed that these responses to stress occur in the Limbic System of your brain. The Limbic System is said to be responsible for the function of the autonomic nervous system (heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and digestion), among other things including emotion, learning, and memory. Our Limbic System will respond to stress or threats in one of three ways: fight, flight, or freeze/fall asleep. This response, whatever that might be based on a combination of our biology and our past experiences, will send signals to the autonomic nervous system and other parts of the body. This is a survival mechanism. For example, with a "fight" or "flight" response, our Limbic System essentially tells our heart to beat faster and sends blood to our limbs, which increases our ability to perform physically and fight off whatever "threat" we are presented with, or to escape. Other times our Limbic System might decide to tell our other systems to shut down, which is the "freeze/fall asleep" response (e.g. fainting). Ever wonder why you feel extra tired when you're stressed? Ever feel your heart racing during a stressful situation? What about performing better in a race or competition than when you're training? It's the genius and magical design of your brain!
So what does this all mean and how do we apply it to managing stress? Well, the experiences described above occur in the "lower" or "unconscious" part of our brain. What this means is that these mechanisms occur without us having to think about it. They are automatic. Our responsibility in managing stress is to:
- Pay attention and listen to our bodies.
- Increase our awareness of how we individually respond to stressful situations (everyone is different!).
- Do what we can to calm or regulate our systems enough so that we can think through situations instead of just reacting (e.g. deep breathing).
- Examine our beliefs about our ability to handle and tolerate stressful situations - if you believe you can, then you can, and you will take action steps to cope in healthy ways. Be kind to yourself and give yourself encouragement instead of criticism.
- Take care of our bodies. Get adequate rest and sleep. Exercise and eat as clean and healthy as possible.
- Work on our perceptions of threats or stressful situations. The Limbic System will respond to any type of "threat" and it is up to the conscious part of our brain to accurately assess the situation and determine if we will need to "fight" or if we can relax.
- Make healthy choices for coping with and managing stress. Click here for more info on stress management.
Remember that stress can be both acute (immediate, short term, one situation) or it can be chronic (long term, repeated, ongoing). Stress is inevitable, positive or negative. It is up to us to decide how we will respond to stressful situations. It is also up to us to manage our stress in healthy ways, and minimize chronic stress as much as possible. Sometimes this will be difficult to do, and you may find yourself experiencing the physiological impacts. This is life, it will happen. The key is to be able to pause, recognize how your body is responding to stress, listen to your body, manage and minimize the stress as much as possible, and take care of yourself as best you can. Stress is always temporary, but you have to give your body an opportunity to recover!
With love and joy,