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Prolonged Stress: How it Impacts Your Body and Mind

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Make Stress Work For You by Marlene Anderson | focuswithmarlene.comIn my book, Make Stress Work for You: 12 Steps to Understanding Stress and Turning it Into a Positive Force, I define what stress is and how to make it work for you.

We can’t live without stress. It is the energy that enables us to get up in the morning, go to work, make vacation plans, solve problems, and live. It enables us to respond to whatever is happening in the moment.

If stress is so necessary, why should I be concerned?

We can handle most stressful things because they happen irregularly. It’s when stress becomes prolonged, without some way to reduce tension, that it takes its toll.

When we do not know how to take charge of our time and life, reduce conflicts and lower emotional outbursts, our stress levels will quickly rise.

Constant fear, worry and overreaction to unexpected events can have a huge impact on our stress levels. Higher levels of anxiety make it harder and harder to relax.

When we become overloaded for long periods of time without relief, our stress energy begins to work against us. Even minor things become magnified.

Researchers at the Duke University Medical Center suggest:

“…the cumulative effect of the daily mental and emotional stresses of life reduces the heart’s ability to respond appropriately to the outside world.”

It has been estimated that around 75% of doctors’ visits are in some way stress-related.

  • Stressed-out people tend to overeat, as food becomes a relaxer. Because of this, we gain weight and have difficulty maintaining a regular exercise program.
  • Stress is a contributing factor, either directly or indirectly, to illness.
  • Stress impacts the heart and can raise blood pressure.
  • Stress has a major impact on coronary artery disease, respiratory disorders and even cancer.
  • When we have high levels of stress we can’t focus or think effectively, are constantly tired and irritable and become a candidate for alcoholism, drug abuse, and addiction. Overmedication or abuse of medically prescribed tranquilizers or barbiturates, or over-the-counter drugs, also can become a quick-fix solution.
  • Smoking increases, whether cigarettes or marijuana, as it gives a quick pleasure fix.
  • Stressed lives lead to more accidental injuries and even suicide.
  • With high levels of stress, our adrenal glands are affected and pump more hormones into our body, which can then chronically depress our immune system.

And round and round it goes. The problems we have become bigger and bigger with no end in sight.

Heavy problems

We were designed to deal with life’s ups and downs. The human body is extremely resilient and flexible. We can deal with high levels of stress but not when there is no relief, or when we haven’t learned how to manage stress.

Consider the following example given to a group of students by a professor as an illustration of stress management.

He picked up and held a glass of water. Then he asked the class, “How heavy do you think this glass of water is?”

The students’ answers ranged from 20g to 500g.

The professor replied, “Does it matter how absolute the weight is or does it matter how long you hold it before it becomes a heavy burden? If I hold this glass of water for a minute, it won’t be too heavy. But if I hold it for an hour, I will have an ache in my right arm. If I hold it all day, you may have to take me to ER. It is the exact same weight, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes.”

Like the glass of water that becomes heavier and heavier the longer we hold it, when we constantly focus on problems without looking for solutions or have no designated times for rest and relaxation, our problems will become heavier and heavier.

But just as stress can be reduced when we put the glass of water down, the same is true for dealing with the problems we face.

“The ultimate goal of those studying stress is not to ‘cure’ us of it, but to optimize it.”

—Robert Sapolsky, Stanford University neurobiologist (2015)

What stresses you out?

Take a moment and reflect on what is happening in your life right now.

  • Can you identify what stresses you out and why?
  • Are your stress levels constantly rising?

Before we can manage our stress we need to identify the causes creating it. Only then will we be able to look for and find ways to reduce or lower unwanted and unnecessary stress. We have become so used to being stressed out we accept it as the new norm.

Lowering your stress level

We can moderate or lower stress levels when we:

  • use appropriate coping skills
  • schedule time for rest, relaxation and fun
  • problem solve
  • find alternative ways to reduce emotional upsets

You can put in place a positive lifestyle while dealing with stressful times.

Related article:

How to Handle Cumulative Stress, Duke TODAY

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