How Our Bodies Respond Physically to Stress – and How to Manage It

May 18th, 2021

By Kara Reynolds

Guest Writer for Wake Up World

After the past year’s events, you probably aren’t surprised if you feel a little more stressed than usual. Have you spent any time in mindfulness recognizing how the added pressure impacts your physiology?

Understanding how your body responds to pressure can help you minimize the long-term adverse effects. Here’s how too much stress impacts your physical self and what you can do to manage it.

1. We Clench Our Jaws

Your mind and your body work as one. As such, mental stress can manifest in painful physical symptoms like grinding your teeth. Research published by the National Institutes of Health shows an association between high neuroticism scores on personality questionnaires and bruxism.

Problems arise when the continued muscle tension causes headaches that make it impossible for you to think. You could also break a tooth, requiring a costly fix — and creating more stress.

How to Manage It

If you get frequent headaches or wake up with one, consider bruxism a possible cause. Book an appointment with your dentist, who can fit you with a specialty mouthguard to prevent damage from unconscious grinding. During the day, avoid behaviors like chewing gum and consciously relax your jawline — set an alert on your phone to remind you.

2. We Lose Our Hair

You’ve probably heard of the term “nervous tic.” Many people manifest unusual behaviors to self-soothe. One of the most frequent is twirling or playing with your hair. If your stress levels grow too severe, you could develop trichotillomania, where you pull it out, sometimes in clumps.

How to Manage It

Spend some time in mindfulness — set a goal of observing your nervous tics. Remember, your objective isn’t to judge. Instead, merely become aware of the unconscious things you do, such as nibbling your fingernails. Then, try replacing the behavior with a healthier way to fidget that doesn’t damage your appearance, such as playing with a rubber band you keep on your wrist.

3. We Pad Our Waistlines

Stress can do a number on your waistline, thanks to the hormone cortisol. This substance takes over after the initial adrenaline surge and tells your body to prepare for a prolonged onslaught. It’s particularly troublesome in modern times because humans can’t run away from micromanaging bosses the way they once did hungry lions.

This hormone’s excess prompts cravings for sugary, fatty foods — where your primitive body would have found sufficient calories to fuel its needs. However, it doesn’t take much physical energy to deal with mental stress, and all that excess tends to pile on around your waistline. Doctors consider belly fat particularly troublesome because it can accumulate around your heart and other vital organs.

How to Manage It

Exercise may be the best way to combat stress and excess calorie consumption at once. You can’t snack during a spin class, but you will blast your quads. Moderate workouts that last less than an hour lower your cortisol levels, helping you control your appetite well after class ends. Plus, your brain releases feel-good endorphins when you move it, further improving your outlook.

4. We Elevate Our Blood Pressure

Your brain is your body’s master control center, telling all your other organs what to do. Recent research out of Australia suggests that chronic stress can cause neurological changes that keep your blood pressure elevated. Hypertension significantly increases your risk of heart attack and stroke.

Chronic stress can also prompt behaviors that increase your cardiovascular disease risk. If you reach for a drink after a trying day, please don’t rationalize that doing so will benefit your heart health. While red wine does have some antioxidants, alcohol also spikes your blood pressure. While it returns to normal when you quit drinking, prolonged excess can lead to hypertension.

How to Manage It

Managing chronic stress might require a mind-body approach. Why not investigate some of the various forms of yoga to find a style that suits your preferences and needs? If you enjoy athletic moves, ashtanga could suit your lifestyle, or yin could delight you if you prefer a low-key, melt-into-your-mat experience.

5. We Weaken Our Immune Response

If you battle chronic stress, you might get sick more often. One 2004 study revealed that prolonged stress depresses all aspects of immune function.

Living with prolonged stress is akin to various neighbors all calling the fire department to rescue treed kitties at the same time. When a genuine emergency, like an invading “five-alarm” germ cell, appears, there are fewer resources available to battle it. Stress prompts your body to release cytokines, proteins that increase inflammation — which is one reason folks with inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis often have worse flares when under pressure.

How to Manage It

If you can’t get a handle on stress, consider seeking professional therapy. Counselors can train you how to restructure panicky thoughts and prescribe medications that can help restore you to balance. If you don’t have insurance coverage, look into some of today’s apps, which cost a fraction of the price while delivering concrete benefits.

Understand and Manage Your Body’s Response to Stress With These Coping Tips

Understanding how stress affects your body is half the battle. By managing the physical manifestations of excess tension, you can calm your mind and prevent some of the long-term health consequences of living under pressure.

Also by Kara Reynolds:

About the author:

Kara Reynolds is the Editor-in-Chief and founder of Momish Magazine.  Mom, stepmom, and wife – Kara wants to normalize big blended families. She enjoys pilates, peanut butter, and pinot grigio – but not at the same time.

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