Updated: Mar 8, 2021
We live in a fast-paced world. The massive amount of information we are exposed to and the rapid pace of change can leave us feeling stressed and overwhelmed as we struggle to keep up. We need some tools to support our health and wellness.
The body supports us during stressful situations by releasing “stress” hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones are released from our two adrenal glands, which sit on top of each kidney. They provide energy to help us respond to stressful situations.
Unfortunately, this comes at a cost. One issue is that the immune system is weakened by high levels of these stress hormones, which makes us more susceptible to infection. This is why you are more likely to get a cold or flu or even a canker sore or cold sore (which are caused by viruses) when you experience a lot of stress.
High levels of these hormones saturate the body’s tissues including the brain, which can cause or exacerbate mental health issues like anxiety or depression. They also saturate the hair follicles causing hair loss, which is often not evident until several months later.
The hormone melatonin is decreased from high levels of cortisol, which is important since melatonin is responsible for helping us calm down and fall asleep at night. Decreases in melatonin can lead to difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. If stress is chronic it requires so much ongoing support by the adrenal glands that over time these glands can become tired and depleted. This leaves you with less energy overall and a reduced ability for the adrenals to help you with the energy you need to respond quickly to an emergency.
So, what can we do about this? Well it turns out there are some simple steps that don’t take a lot of time and can be easily incorporated into your life so that chronic stress won’t derail your life and harm your health.
Notice Your Own Unique Responses to Stress Using Body Scan
The first step is learning to pay attention to our body and mind so that we can recognize our own unique responses to stress. A simple way to do this is to do a “body scan”. This technique will help you learn to recognize your own unique responses to stress so that you can identify early signs and take action quickly if you choose to do so.
A body scan is quick and easy to do and can be done anywhere without anyone even knowing you are doing it. You simply direct your attention throughout your body, moving slowly from one end of your body to the other. As you slowly scan your body, notice how each area feels, paying particular attention to signs of tension or discomfort. When you get to your chest, notice how fast and how deep you are breathing. And when you get to your head, notice your emotions and mood. With practice, this can be done is as little as 1-2 minutes.
It might be easiest to incorporate this into your life by doing a body scan either right away in the morning when you wake up before getting out of bed, at bedtime before falling sleep or both. You can take as much time doing this scan as you wish.
As you become more comfortable doing this scan, you can speed up the process and use it quickly throughout your day whenever you sense you are feeling stressed to identify how your body and mind are responding. With repeated use, you can look for patterns in how you respond to stress. This allows you to recognize early signs of stress and take appropriate actions to support your body.
Some Typical Responses to Stress
Everyone reacts to stress in their own unique way, so responses will vary from one person to the next. I tend to tighten muscles when I am stressed, including my upper back resulting in my shoulders raising and the muscles of my jaw resulting in clenching.
Mood can be affected such as feeling more irritable and less patient, perhaps feeling easily annoyed or “snapping” at others. You may respond by having more difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep due to reduced melatonin. Many people either breath shallow when they are stressed or even hold their breath for periods of time.
Using the body scan technique can help you recognize your own personal responses to stress and give you a fast-track to identifying when to take one or more of the stress-busting actions that I will cover in Part 2 of this article.
Knowledge is power when organized and directed towards a goal. Here’s to your health.
Karen M. Gutierrez, PhD, RN, Advanced Holistic Nurse-Board Certified