I was talking with a patient this morning, and as she was explaining the stress in her life to me I realized that many people have not heard the full story on stress, how the body responds to it, and what it does to their bodies over time. This is another conversation I have daily, so I wanted to share it with you. First, I will tell you a story about a stressful event, and then we will break it down afterward.
You are going for a walk in the city, and as you are enjoying the sights and letting your mind wander, a man steps out from around the corner and pulls a knife on you. In an instant, your pulse quickens, your eyes widen, blood rushes to your limbs, and you are fully in fight or flight mode. In this moment, your signal detection skill is increased at the expense of your concentration, similar to having ADHD. You are not going to stand there and study what the knife is made of, the length of the blade, or if it is serrated or not to determine the threat level, you are going to fight or flee. Why? Deep concentration at this moment is not what is going to help you live, but your ability to detect threats in the environment is what will help you escape. This is the survival value of the stress response – you perceived a threat and the fight or flight response happens so you can remove yourself from the threatening environment in order to live. The key here is that physical activity was needed in order to return your body to a normal state. More on that later.
Stress, what is it?
Stress is how our bodies respond to our world. There are different types of stress such as physical, emotional, and chemical. We experience stress when our minds perceive a change in our internal or external environment, but it is how we view that change that determines how strong the stress response is. So, stress is how the body prepares for and responds to change. Our perception of that change determines the magnitude of the body’s response.
How does the body respond to stress?
The body responds to stress in the same way, no matter what kind of stress it is (physical, chemical, emotional). This response is called the General Adaptation Syndrome, and it includes three phases:
- Alarm – you release hormones (adrenaline, cortisol) – meant to be short-lived
- Resistance – your body tries to adapt to continued stress. If the stress passes you begin to return to normal, if it continues you move on to phase 3
- Exhaustion – overload. This puts you at risk for disease (digestive, cardiovascular, immune dysfunction, obesity, depression, anxiety).
What does stress do to the body over time?
In the alarm phase when you first perceive stress, your body produces the “stress hormones” adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones trigger the changes that create the fight or flight response we talked about in the knife story above. You require physical exertion in order to burn these off so your body can return to normal quickly. Have you ever gotten stressed and wanted to lift weights, go for a run, or to go chop wood?
This is precisely why. Unfortunately, we have conditioned our bodies and minds against this. We sit at work all day dealing with different emotional stresses and the physical stress of constant sitting, and we just store that stress in our bodies until they begin to break down.
This is why exercise is so important, and why movement is the key to a healthy life. Physical activity burns off the stored stress and tension in your body, returning it to balance. In today’s world it is rare that individual stressors are life-threatening, but in our complex and fast-paced lifestyles, all the small stressful events we experience add up to be just as threatening.
Here is an in depth read on how to address stress in your life, and how to experience wellness in today’s environment. The keys are as always: eat right, get adjusted regularly, exercise often, and stay positive.
Keep moving and be healthy,