How Stress Affects Your Body

It’s Sunday evening and the weekend has flown by. But you just remembered you have a meeting to prepare for first thing tomorrow morning. You get your laptop out at 9pm and don’t finish until 11.  You’re too wired to go to bed so you watch TV for an hour or so and finally get off to sleep at 12.30am. You have a restless night, struggling to really sleep as you’re worrying about the day ahead.  The next thing you know, the alarm clock startles you awake. You’re shocked and feel exhausted so hit the snooze button. 10 minutes later: BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! You head straight to the kitchen for a coffee to wake you up. Before you even poor your coffee, you try and work out how you’re getting to get all three kids up, fed and dressed, finish your meeting prep and get on the road before rush hour traffic.

You have SO much to do before the school drop off, there is no time for breakfast. You grab another coffee and a croissant from the canteen on your way to the office. Work is non-stop throughout the day. Your manager has called in sick so you offer to do some extra work and lunchtime to cover. Between meetings, calls and more meetings you’re eating an a chocolate bar to keep you going and having your fourth coffee. You suddenly remember that you forgot to pack your son’s gym kit for school. Then, your husband calls you to remind you that he is staying late at work tonight so you need to sort the kids out.

It’s 5:30pm and you’re itching to get home. First you must pick the kids up from after school club, go to the supermarket to pick up dinner, and drop your daughter off at music club. You don’t get home until 7:30pm then it’s time to make dinner, help with homework and pay a bill that’s been outstanding for a few weeks. Dinner’s done, the kids are in bed and you’re exhausted. You have a big pile of dishes and washing to do which you just can’t face without some help. Another cup of coffee should see you through the evening. It’s only Monday yet it feels like Thursday already!

Does this sound a little like your day? Or maybe it sounds relaxing compared to yours? Even if your day isn’t quite this chaotic, we all experience some degree of stress and today I want to tell you what this does to your body.

The six types of stress we discussed yesterday can be grouped into Internal and External stressors

  1. Internal stressors come from within the body and are often a reaction to external stressors. For example, if you’re exposed to toxic chemicals for a long period of time or frequently, your body can be more susceptible to diseases and cancer. Or if you’re in an unhappy external relationship, it can create a chronic stress response within in the body.
  2. External stressors stress the body from the outside. This can be sunlight, physical pain (caused by an injury or external forces), toxic chemical exposure and much more.

All stressors are funnelled together and processed by your nervous system to create an overall stress picture in the body. You’ll stay in balance if the total stress picture is favourable for your body. Your response to external stressors such as exercise will be positive and your body will have a good ability to bounce back from damaging stressors.

If, however, the sum of stressors places too great a demand on your body, you’ll begin to fall out of balance. If you don’t make the necessary changes to reduce stressors, your body begins to break down. Your ability to cope with external stressors reduces, as is your ability to cope with internal stressors e.g. disease. The more/longer this happens, the more frequently disease takes hold.

To fully understand the stress response, it is important for me to briefly explain your nervous system and how it works…don’t worry, this won’t be too complicated so keep reading…

There are two components to your nervous system:

And there are two components of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS):

Some of the ways the body responds to the SNS being activated is to:

  • release stress hormones that elevate heart rate and blood pressure
  • shunt blood away from internal organs to your skin and muscles. This can reduce or stop your digestive and elimination processes
  • increase sweating

If our fight/flight response is activated, the levels of your stress hormone, cortisol, increase.  If cortisol levels are above normal, growth and repair hormones become suppressed. A long term over-production of cortisol levels leads to a break down of body tissues and the fatigue of your adrenal glands. As your adrenals fatigue, your body is unable to maintain the balance between your stress and immune hormones which can lead to immune system dysfunction. What’s more is that when you’re repeatedly stressed, you are continually mobilising your energy reserves for immediate use and the PNS is suppressed so you will be unable to effectively digest foods and repair your body.

If we return to our typical day above, waking up tired to annoying alarm clock, immediately activates your SNS. Coffee (an adrenal stressor), along with a diet that doesn’t produce an optimal metabolic response, magnifies the response. Even before the day has really begun, you have created a state in your body that is the equivalent of running away from the lion! Once at work, an insufficient breakfast causes  low blood sugar and low energy levels which activates the SNS again. This produces hormones that activate the body’s energy stores to make sure there is sufficient fuel to run the brain. Yo-yoing like this throughout the day stresses your hormonal system and keeps you in a state of fight/flight all day. In the evening, when it’s usually time to wind down, you have to drink coffee to keep you going. So instead of letting the PNS work to rest and repair your body, the SNS is once again disrupting your digestion and blood sugar levels and reducing your ability to get a good night’s sleep. You might wake up in the middle of the night due to the “activating effect” of stress hormones, sweating from an increased metabolic rate. You’ll become more and more tired, fatigued and you will start suffering from a number of ailments.

However, if you eat regularly planned meals that support your metabolic type, and, as you control your daily schedule, you’ll be able to keep your ANS functioning well which means that when a stressor does occur, you’re capable of adapting quickly. After dinner, your PNS will be regularly activated to facilitate digestion, elimination, immune function, growth and repair processes. You will be able to sleep from,10.30pm and have a proper sleep, to allow your body to grow and repair.

So you’ve read through this and realised that you need to manage your stress levels better? Here are a few useful ideas:

  1. Identify your primary stressor. By reducing stress in this main area, it can have a domino affect on other stressors
  2. Make a plan. Be realistic in addressing your biggest stressor and set a series of short-term goals to help you eliminate it. Look for books that address issues related to your primary stressor and how to overcome it. Or find someone who has been successful in overcoming the challenge you face.
  3. Eat and drink correctly. If you aren’t eating correctly, you won’t be able to effectively replace the stress hormones you are using on a daily basis, which places more stress on the body. Eat as much organic and free-range food as possible. The more conventionally farmed food you eat, the more toxins you are consuming which stresses your body at a metabolic level; this has also been linked to mental and emotional dysfunction. Dehydration is a common cause of internal stress. A reduction of 1% water in the Central Nervous System can cause psychological disorders. Reduce your intake of coffee, tea and fizzy drinks and drink high quality water whenever and wherever possible.
  4. Move and exercise. Regular exercise can reduce stress. When performed correctly for your needs, exercise in the correct dose stimulates an anabolic (growth & repair) environment.
  5. Mental exercise. Many successful people give credit to the power of positive thinking. Talking and thinking of what you do want rather than what you don’t want can really help with this. Try some meditation!

Although a slightly long blog, I do hope you have found it helpful to learn about what your body’s response is to stress, particularly when you are stressed for a long time/too much. If you have any questions or would like to discuss this more then please don’t hesitate to get in touch!




2 Comments on How Stress Affects Your Body

  1. A really helpful piece Jo, thank you! I’m off the coffee and noticing a difference already.

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