How Does Chronic Stress Impact Your Health and Happiness

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We have a tendency to wear our busyness like a badge of honor. We boast about the craziness of our schedules and we even advertise how little sleep we get or the fact that we haven’t taken a vacation in years.  Ingrained in our culture and work habits is the idea that stress and success are intertwined.  We seem to think that the more stress we experience the more successful we will be. But, how does chronic stress impact your health and happiness?

Stress can be described as a feeling of being overwhelmed, worried, or run-down. It affects people of all ages, genders, and circumstances.  Chronic stress taxes a person’s mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing, leading to health consequences and deterioration of their immune, cardiovascular, neuroendocrine, and central nervous systems.

Emotional symptoms of stress include:

  • Becoming easily agitated, frustrated, and moody

  • Feeling overwhelmed, like you are losing control or need to take control

  • Having difficulty relaxing and quieting your mind

  • Feeling bad about yourself (low self-esteem), lonely, and depressed

  • Avoiding others

Physical symptoms of stress include:

  • Low energy

  • Headaches

  • Upset stomach, including diarrhea, constipation, and nausea

  • Aches, pains, and tense muscles

  • Chest pain and rapid heartbeat

  • Insomnia

  • Frequent colds and infections

  • Loss of sexual desire and/or ability

  • Nervousness and shaking, ringing in the ear, cold or sweaty hands and feet

  • Dry mouth and difficulty swallowing

  • Clenched jaw and grinding teeth

Cognitive symptoms of stress include:

  • Constant worrying

  • Racing thoughts

  • Forgetfulness and disorganization

  • Inability to focus

  • Poor judgment

  • Being pessimistic or seeing only the negative side

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Stress can be linked to major illnesses, such as heart disease, depression, and obesity.  Unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as overeating "comfort" foods and self medicating with drugs and alcohol, have contributed to the growing obesity and substance abuse epidemics seen both in the United States and worldwide.  Yet, despite its connection to illness, a 2017 survey conducted by the American Psychological Association, titled “Stress in America” revealed that 33 percent of Americans never discuss ways to manage stress with their healthcare provider.

A second study conducted by the American Institute of Stress in 2014 showed that:

  • Annual stress-related health-care costs employers $300 billion

  • 77% of people surveyed are regularly impacted financially as a result of stress

  • 73% of people surveyed are regularly impacted psychologically as a result of stress

  • 48% of people surveyed report losing sleep at night as a result of stress

Our bodies are hard-wired to react to stress in ways meant to protect us against threats. This is illustrated by the the fight-or-flight response,  a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival.  Reflect on your own behaviors for a moment.  How quickly do you bounce back from frustrations, stressful episodes, or disagreements?  Do you still feel a pinch of stress when thinking about upsetting events from days past?

Now, consider an antelope in the wild. When a lion is chasing an antelope the animal is in flight mode. Its sympathetic nervous system is fully activated and adrenaline is pumping through its body to ensure survival. Once out of harm’s way, however, the antelope’s body transitions from fight-or-flight to rest-and-digest. Stress is reduced almost immediately as if a switch was flipped off. In doing so, the antelope returns to an optimal state and it begins to restore its resources and energy. When an animal enters into a high-stress or survival state they do so only for as long as necessary to resolve the situation. Once a threat has been addressed, the animal returns to a natural, calm, relaxed state.

Cortisol is known as the “stress hormone.” Regularly practicing yogic breathing exercises normalizes the level of cortisol in your nervous system.  As a regular practice, yogic breathing can recondition your body to a state of greater calm, helping it bounce back from stress more quickly.  Abdominal breathing, deep controlled breathes from the diaphragm, is particularly beneficial, as are lengthened exhales.  Exhalations slow the heart rate, so the longer we spend on the outbreath, the more our nervous system relaxes.  You can employ daily breathing exercises, such as Alternate Nostril Breathing, to condition your nervous system to be resilient in the face of stress.

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Below are some ways we recommend incorporating yoga into your daily routine to help reduce the effects of stress. 

1.) Get into a rhythm, but be gentle with yourself

A good way to develop a pattern or rhythm of practice is to spend some time analyzing your daily routines and look for points in the day when you could benefit from an energetic shift or some centering; or where you simply have extra time that could be used for practice.

2.) Practice off the mat

 Even when you are not at the gym, studio, or near a yoga mat, there are lots of ways yoga can become a normal part of your day. For an example, watch our videos on seated sun salutations, which can be practiced at home or in the office. 

Seated Sun Salutations Part 1

Seated Sun Salutations Part 2

3.) Be mindful of your posture

Bring awareness to your body’s weight distribution and alignment throughout the day.  If you spend the majority of your work day seated in a chair, get up, stretch, and go for walks intermittently throughout your day. 

4.) Get grounded

When you stand, ground yourself by really feeling your feet. As you move throughout your day, try moving with intention. 

5.) Be compassionate with yourself and others

Notice your feelings as they arise, instead of pretending that they aren't there. Be gentle with yourself and others when mistakes are made.  Yoga practice is a way to honor yourself. Take some time each day to appreciate your gifts and talents that you have to offer the world.

Thank you for reading. If you found this information beneficial, please consider making a sustainable donation to Yoga 4 Change.  Your donation is used to support our core programs and helps us fulfill our mission. Please click below to donate online.  You can make a one time or reoccurring tax deductible contribution. 

Patrick Fisher