We all deal with stressful moments, but when stress piles up day after day, it can cause you to experience physical symptoms.
If you struggle with frequent headaches, stomach aches, or cold symptoms, chronic stress may be the culprit. Chronic stress refers to feelings of stress that continue over an extended period of time.
So if you are suffering from a tension headache or indigestion due to stress, what can you do about it?
The good news is you can use practical stress management strategies that tap into your body to reduce or prevent some of the symptoms of stress.
What Can Stress Do to the Body?
The first step is to understand how stress affects the body. When you experience a stressful situation (aka a trigger), your body releases stress hormones (like cortisol) that prepare you to face a life-threatening situation.
When the situation that triggered you is over, this hormonal response subsides so your body can resume its normal function. When you feel constant stress, or stress over long periods of time, your stress hormones remain high and so do a number of other physiological symptoms (muscle tension, elevated heart rate, etc.) — instead of subsiding, they remain at heightened levels and eventually create a “new normal.”
Over time, chronic stress can lead to physical symptoms such as tension headaches and a weakened immune system (making you more susceptible to catching a cold or flu).
When stress persists, stress hormones also disrupt your body’s natural digestion process. As a result, stress can cause diarrhea, constipation, stomach pain, and other digestive issues.
Here are 4 practical stress management tips to ease the effects of stress on the body.
1. Use Breathwork to Interrupt the Stress Response
Breathing is one of the most important things you can do to manage stress.
I know what you’re thinking: “I breathe all day long, and I still feel stressed. How does that help?” Yes, you breathe all day, but you probably don’t pay much attention to how you are breathing.
One way that stress affects the body is by accelerating your breathing. When you feel stress, it’s common to take short, shallow breaths in and out; rather than slow and calm breaths.
The speed and pattern of your breathing has a significant impact on the rest of your body — rapid breathing tells your body (and more importantly your brain) that you are in danger and can heighten your anxiety.
Breathwork is an easy way to put yourself back in control. Practicing mindful breathing techniques changes your breathing rate, allowing you to control your physical reaction to stress or a specific trigger. Taking slow, deliberate breaths signals to your body that you are safe and it is okay to be in a relaxed state; and your brain then signals your stress hormone (cortisol) to lower.
2. Practice Meditation to Change Your Body’s Reaction to Stress
Meditation is about mindfulness, or learning to observe without judgment.
Practicing meditation simply means practicing how to notice your outer and inner environment without judging it — that can mean observing sounds and smells around you, as well as observing the thoughts, questions, and worries that enter your mind.
For many people, experiencing stress leads to feeling anxious, ashamed, or frustrated with yourself for feeling stressed. It becomes a vicious cycle, where any stress triggers more stress.
Instead of letting your body recover from the initial stress, this intensifies or extends the time that your body remains in a high state of anxiety.
Meditating can help you calm your mind, slow your racing thoughts, and learn to acknowledge a feeling of stress without increasing that stress. This can help your body come back down to a more restful and neutral state.
3. Do Yoga to Release Stress In the Body
Did you know that many people hold stress in different parts of the body? You may be holding onto chronic stress in your hips, abdomen, shoulders, neck, or other areas of your body — leading to tension, aches, or pains.
Yoga can help you to stretch, strengthen, and loosen your muscles, allowing you to release tension that your body may be holding onto. Many yoga poses are designed to gently loosen and relax key parts of the body where we commonly hold stress.
Another reason yoga is commonly linked to stress relief is the connection it builds between your body and your breath. By connecting movement in your body with your natural breathing pattern, it’s easier to interrupt stressful thoughts and focus on the present movement, inhale, or exhale.
4. Improve Your Sleep Habits to Boost Your Immune System
While easing stress can help you sleep better, the opposite is also true: improving your sleep can help combat symptoms of chronic stress.
One thing stress does to the body is to temporarily direct resources away from long-term functions such as the immune system, so you have more energy for running or fighting the immediate danger. When stress persists, your hormone levels remain imbalanced which can disrupt the normal functioning of your immune system. It may make you more vulnerable to congestion, a runny nose, coughing, or sneezing.
Getting consistent, restful sleep helps your body fight off germs and viruses. While you are sleeping, your body can devote more resources to repairing your body and building up your immune system to help you combat a cold.
Getting good quality sleep regularly also gives you more energy throughout the day to do the things you want to do!
Become the CEO of Your Stress
When you understand what stress does to the body, you are better prepared to combat it with strategies that ease the physical effects of chronic stress.
I am on a mission to help other women take back their freedom from stress. As a functional health and nutrition coach — and a corporate professional who knows firsthand the challenges of chronic stress — I combine nutrition, yoga, meditation, breathwork, and fitness strategies to help you become the CEO of your Stress. Join my free Facebook Group: Be the CEO of Your Stress for more gems on how to stress less!