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Understanding the Stress-Body Connection (Plus 5 Steps for De-Stressing)

  • Category: Stress Management
  • Posted On:
  • Written By: Dr. Wachovia C. Banks, Family Medicine
Understanding the Stress-Body Connection (Plus 5 Steps for De-Stressing)

Did you know that April is Stress Awareness Month? In this post, we’re breaking down the connection between a stressed-out mental state and physical health—plus, we’ll share some easy stress-relieving strategies you can try for yourself.   

Whether it’s a looming deadline at work, a big exam on the horizon, having to care for loved ones, or just dealing with the day-to-day—today’s world can feel anxiety-inducing at the best of times (not to mention during a global pandemic) and it’s completely normal to feel stressed out occasionally. 

MORE: Loneliness in the era of COVID-19

While we all experience a little stress from time to time, chronic stress can become a big problem with long-term health impacts if left untreated. Knowing the signs is important so that you can recognize it and take steps to address the issue before it causes lasting health problems.  

How do the experts define stress? 

Great question. Stress can be challenging to measure or define, and it can present itself in different ways for different people. The experts generally define it as the feeling of emotional or physical tension.  

While stress impacts all areas of our body, it starts in a small area of your brain known as the hypothalamus, which controls the release of stress hormones that power our “fight or flight” response. When “fight or flight” stress hormones are released, you might experience: 

  • A rapid heart rate 
  • Increased breathing 
  • Muscle tension 

This process is a natural, evolutionary response to dangerous situations. It can be helpful if we need to react quickly to protect ourselves—say, from a hungry lion or a threatening stranger. However, being stuck in “fight or flight” mode, thanks to an ongoing release of stress hormones, can put us at risk of developing long-term health problems.  

Sounds familiar… 

That’s not surprising: after two+ years of living during a global pandemic, Americans are more stressed than ever. In fact, the American Psychological Association recently published a report revealing just how harmful the pandemic has been to people’s mental health, noting that among those surveyed: 

  • 61% experienced undesired weight changes  
  • 67% experienced sleep disruption (either insomnia or sleeping more than usual)  
  • 23% reported drinking more alcohol 
  • 31% reported an increase in mental health issues 

MORE: How stress impacts health

The stress-body connection 

While there’s a longstanding misconception that stress is “all in your head,” the latest medical research reveals this is far from the case. Though stress begins in the brain, there’s not a single major organ or bodily function that isn’t impacted by stress. For example, stressed individuals might experience: 

  • Headaches, especially tension headaches 
  • Increased depression, irritability, and anxiety 
  • Insomnia 
  • Weakened immune system 
  • Heartburn  
  • Risk of heart attack 
  • High blood sugar and blood pressure 
  • Stomach pain and digestive issues 
  • Fertility problems 
  • Muscle aches and pains, including chronic leg and backaches 

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5 easy stress-relieving steps 

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, and suspect it may be due to stress, it’s important to talk to a healthcare professional. They can provide you with extra support, and can work with you to come up with a game plan to manage your stress and symptoms.   

In the meantime, try incorporating these five stress-relieving steps into your daily routine: 

  • Exercise regularly: Movement is key to managing our stress, boosting our mood, and improving our overall health. Aim for 30 minutes a day, of whatever kind of exercise or movement you enjoy.  

  • Try out different relaxation techniques: Meditation, prayer, breathing exercises, or relaxing activities, such as cuddling a pet or listening to your favorite music, can all be great ways to slow down our stress hormones. Try out a few different techniques to find what works for you. 

Woman meditating

  • Set realistic goals: It’s important to remember that we are all only human, and we can’t control everything, every day, all the time. Set realistic goals for your day, and don’t beat yourself up if you can’t get to everything on your to-do-list.  

  • Learn to say no: Many of us struggle to say “no”—especially if we fear disappointing others—but setting boundaries is critical to protecting our mental health. Journaling about your priorities can help you decide what is truly urgent, and what can wait. 

  • Ask for help: Reach out to family and friends for support, as talking to someone can help ease stress and provides new perspectives on issues that may be bothering you. 

Remember, it’s normal to find yourself overwhelmed or stressed. We all need a little extra help and support sometimes, so don’t hesitate to seek help if you need it. Be sure to contact your Primary Care Provider if you have any questions. 

About Dr. Banks

Dr. Wachovia Banks

Wachovia Banks, MD specializes in Primary Care. She became a healthcare provider because of the relationships she's able to develop with her patients. Her patients can count on her to provide extraordinary care because she is a "tough love doctor". Out of love and care, Dr. Banks is going to tell you what you need to hear.