The Physical Manifestation of Stress

You’re exhausted and irritable. Your breaths are as quick and short as your temper. The tension in your body makes it difficult to fall asleep at night and you’re beginning to wonder if daily headaches are just a normal part of your life now. Your appetite has changed and so has your sex drive. You feel anxious, nauseous, and dizzy all the time and are only a paper cut away from a full-blown meltdown.

Someone asks what’s been going on with you and you snap back, “I’m just really stressed out, okay?!”

I’ve been there, you’ve been there, we’ve all been there at one point or another. Stress sneaks up on us like a California rainstorm. It can turn one of our pleasures into something we dread. It often starts small and builds until we are drowning in it, flooded by the emotional and physical toll it has taken on our bodies and our minds. 

It would be impossible not to get stressed in our fast-paced lives from time to time, but when stress becomes the rule instead of the exception, it can lead to serious psychological and even biological problems. 

What is Stress?

Stress is difficult to define because it has several forms and, thus, looks a little different for everyone. Let’s put it this way: if you plugged your symptoms into WebMD, you would most likely get misdiagnosed (and let’s be real, it would probably say you’ve got some incurable disease because doesn’t it always?)

Stress often starts small and builds until we are drowning in it, flooded by the emotional and physical toll it has taken on our bodies and our minds.

While the actual symptoms of stress can vary from person to person, it all boils down to one thing: stress is how your body responds to danger. This built-in survival technique triggers our “fight or flight” response that enables us to avoid threats which is great news if you’re, say, trying to outrun a bear. The kicker, however, is that our bodies don’t know the difference between a bear attack and an “I’m having a really awful day” attack. 

Since the body is designed to experience stress as a response to a real emergency, you can imagine that it gets worn down when we are triggering that SOS regularly. This leads to burnout, which plunges our poor bodies into a free-for-all of negative symptoms such as depression, anxiety, aches and pains, autoimmune diseases, digestive problems, memory loss, and so on. 

1. The Alarm Stage

During this first stage, your body basically presses the big red panic button and your sympathetic nervous system kicks on and says, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this!”

Then your brain triggers adrenal glands to secrete glucocorticoid hormones like cortisol and epinephrine (i.e., adrenaline).

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Picture it this way: Your brain gets all Arnold Schwarzenegger on you and says, “I want to PUMP YOU UP!”

This causes an increase in your pulse, blood pressure, blood sugar levels, respiration, sweat, and pupil dilation.

2. The Adaptive/Resistance Stage

Once your body has had its Hulk moment, it attempts to transition back to its normal, Bruce Banner, stable self (i.e., homeostasis). But if your stress reactions are too strong or triggered too often, your body will remain in Code Red Mode and be unable to return to its zen. 

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Since your body is now in a constant state of stress, it builds up a resistance and even a tolerance to coexist with these stressors since, apparently, they aren’t going away anytime soon and you still need to function somehow.

Unfortunately, the extended vacation these stress hormones are having in your body cause your immune system to malfunction, making you much more susceptible to a variety of illnesses. 

3. The Exhaustion Stage

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At this point, your body is like Tom Hanks in Castaway. It’s feeling wired and a little crazy (“WIlson, where are you?!”). Your emergency resources have been depleted and your body starts to shut down. Burnout is basically your body’s swan song. 

Your body starts finalizing the will and saying its goodbyes because it has a flair for the dramatic and officially cannot cope anymore. But, truthfully, this is where you become at serious risk of big and scary things like a stroke or heart attack. It’s serious business because no one’s body was built to think it’s being chased by a bear all the time. 

Reducing Stress

Now that we’ve covered how dangerous stress can be for both your mental and physical health, I’ve got good news: Remember the big red “Do not push unless it’s an emergency”button that gets set off when you’re stressed?

Well, there’s another button that can turn that bad boy off! (Insert sigh of relief here)

The parasympathetic nervous system (say that five times fast) helps the body conserve energy and get some much needed R&R. 

The main difference between the “rest and digest” button and the “fight or flight” one, however, is that it isn’t automatically activated. Our body doesn’t instinctively put us into rest mode because it’s too busy trying to cope with being on high alert 24/7.

This means it is up to us to find ways to activate the relaxation response in our bodies, which is critical to our well-being.

So what can you do? Everyone is different, so it’s important to try different techniques and see what works best for you as an individual.

Here is a list of some great techniques you can use to reduce stress:

• Meditate
• Prioritize tasks
• Organize your work and living spaces to be clutter-free and peaceful
• Eat a healthy diet
• Get plenty of rest
• Connect with others (go have that coffee date you keep postponing!) 
• Exercise
• Plan your schedule using a daily or weekly planner
• Delegate tasks when you feel overwhelmed

I help many of my clients overcome stress by teaching them how to build their own self-care toolbox. I’ve successfully guided many of my clients to overcome stress eating by teaching them how to investigate their true needs. If you’d like more support with overcoming stress, sign up here for a 60-minute consultation!

Elizabeth Reyes