Did the latest challenge at work bring on a tightening in your stomach? Does constant worry about a loved one’s health make you physically ill yourself? Everyone at some point feels the effects of stress. Not everyone deals with stress in the best way, though.
“Often stressed-out people seek relief through alcohol, tobacco or drugs, but that just makes matters worse,” says Richard Purvis, a health and wellness practitioner and author of Recalibrate: Six Secrets to Resetting Your Age.
“Instead of relieving stress, those toxic substances tend to keep the body in a stressed state, causing even more physical problems.”
April is Stress Awareness Month, a good time to reflect on how the demands and anxieties of daily life put a strain not just on our minds, but on our bodies as well.
Stress, of course, is not always a bad thing. It does serve a positive purpose.
“It can keep us alert and prepares us to avoid danger,” Purvis says. “But stress becomes a negative factor when a person faces continuous challenges without any time mixed in for relief or relaxation.”
As a result, he says, people become overworked, and stress-related anxiety and illness can occur. The strain leads them to suffer from such ailments as headaches, upset stomach, elevated blood pressure, chest pain and problems sleeping.
Purvis says a few examples of how stress can play havoc on our bodies include:
Musculoskeletal system. When we experience anxiety, it’s natural for our muscles to tense up. “It’s the body’s way of guarding against injury and pain,” Purvis says. Usually, the muscles relax once the stressful event passes. But chronic stress keeps the muscles in a constant state of guardedness. “When muscles are taut and tense for long periods of time other reactions in the body are triggered,” he says. Chronic muscle tension in the shoulders, neck and head can lead to tension-type headaches and migraines.
Respiratory system. Anxiety and worry cause people to breathe harder. “That’s not a problem for most people,” Purvis says. “But if you suffer from asthma or a lung disease such as emphysema, getting essential oxygen can be difficult.” He says some studies show that acute events – such as the death of a loved one – can trigger asthma attacks in which the airway between the nose and the lungs constrict. Also, rapid breathing associated with anxiety – or hyperventilation – can result in a panic attack in some people.
Gastrointestinal system. Sometimes people who are stressed will eat much more than usual. Sometimes they will eat much less. Neither is healthy. “You can get heartburn or acid reflux if you eat more food or different types of food, or if you increase how much alcohol you drink or tobacco you use,” Purvis says. When you’re stressed, the brain sends alert sensations to the stomach. Your stomach can react with “butterflies,” nausea or pain.
“Severe stress can cause vomiting, diarrhea or constipation,” he says. “If your stress becomes chronic, you might develop ulcers or severe stomach pain.”
So what’s to be done? Purvis points out that anxiety is a natural occurrence in life and happens to everyone.
“Since you can’t avoid your job, bills, or other life experiences, the best thing to do is learn to manage stress,” he says. “You won’t avoid (it) entirely, but it is possible to minimize the effects by eating healthy, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and taking care of yourself in general.”