Stress, like people, comes in all shapes and sizes, and we all interact with it on a daily basis. There are two types of stress: eustress, which is good stress, and distress, which is bad stress. Eustress stems from getting a promotion or buying a new home. Distress is having too much to do and not enough time to do it or getting into a conflict with a loved one. While our brain may think of these types of stresses differently, our body does not.
Most people know that being too stressed can lead to a heart attack or stroke, but what about the day-to-day impact that stress has on the body?
When we get stressed, our endocrine system secretes higher levels of the hormone cortisol. This hormone is useful in our “fight-or-flight” response when we need it, but at high levels over time it can impact many other systems. High levels of cortisol can alter our metabolism, causing weight gain unless there’s a change in diet or exercise. It can decrease our ability to concentrate or impact our memory. Cortisol also decreases the efficacy of our immune system, making us more likely to get sick. It can raise our blood pressure and increase our susceptibility to heart disease. In all, increased cortisol over a long period has many detrimental effects on the body.
It’s not just about cortisol; depression and anxiety can be directly related to high levels of stress. These issues can decrease motivation and increase our likelihood of being sedentary. At really high levels, stress can cause what many refer to as a “nervous breakdown.” This can include symptoms of psychosis (hallucinations and delusions) and a loss of function, both physically and mentally.
Given that stress can lead to all of these scary systemic problems, what can we do to reduce the impact of stress?
The best way to deal with stress is to develop what we call “adaptive coping strategies.” Many of us, at times, turn to food, alcohol or sleep as our way to deal with stress. These are considered “maladaptive coping strategies.” While there are a number of adaptive coping strategies, such as engaging in enjoyable activities like reading, writing, etc., one of the most effective methods is physical activity.
I know, I know … when we’re stressed we don’t have time for physical activity. But I believe that if we make something a priority, we can always find time. It may mean moving something else, but it will totally be worth it. Physical activity is unlikely to get rid of the stressor(s) you are experiencing, but it is one of the most effective ways to reduce the overall impact of stress.
This occurs through the physical release of energy that builds up when we get stressed and/or anxious. It also helps with the psychological release of energy. When we are stressed and anxious, we often have thoughts that continually roll through our minds and never seem to go away. Exercise can give us the time and space to sort out our thoughts and better clear our mind.
Physical activity also reduces our levels of cortisol, which thereby reduces all of the negative impacts listed previously. It helps us process fats more effectively, increases our immune functions, promotes a healthier heart and better blood pressure, all while transforming our body into a more healthy vessel.
Much of the research tells us that all it takes is 20-30 minutes of physical activity four to five times per week to see significant benefits in the reduction of the impact of stress. Often during stressful times, the last thing we want to do is pile more on our plate by adding physical activity, but it’s one of the most important things we can do. •