Stress is a common and normal – and something we all experience on a day-to-day or certainly week-to-week basis. It’s our body’s innate defense mechanism against a perceived threat or danger. Our stress response – also known as the fight, flight, or freeze response – can be brought on by anything, such as change, an argument we had with our partner, or an upcoming work deadline that we need to meet. While the way we experience and manage stress varies between individuals, stress can usually have both positive and negative effects. When it’s short in duration, it can keep us focused and motivated. But when we’re in a heightened state of arousal for a long period of time, stress can be harmful to our emotional and physical well-being.
The connection between our physical & mental health
Medicine – and society in general, for that matter – are increasingly recognizing the intertwined nature of our physical and emotional health. Gone are the beliefs of traditional medicine that purported that we could somehow separate our physical state from our psychological, emotional, and spiritual well-being.
The experience of stress manifesting itself as physical symptoms is a common one: Most people who are dealing with chronic stressors experience some impact on how they feel physically. Research demonstrates the comorbidity rate between physical and emotional health conditions (those with psychological conditions who will also experience impairing physical symptoms) to be as high as 80 per cent, and vice-versa.
How we experience stress
The way our stress reveals itself depends on myriad factors, including our childhood history; personality and genetic predispositions; how we observed our parents dealing with stress; and whether or not overt emotional displays were viewed as ‘acceptable’ ways to communicate stress in our family.
Individual differences exist in the degree and intensity to which emotional issues manifest physically, but the most common physical symptoms are stomach/gastrointestinal problems (tension, nausea, constipation, diarrhea), pain (headaches, back pain, chest tightness), appetite changes and sleep problems.
What can we do about it?
So how can we effectively manage stress when the physical symptoms become distressing and potentially damaging? A good first step is to consult with your medical doctor. They can offer objective input into the contributors of your physical symptoms and ensure that nothing more serious is going on.
Next, get very structured and rigid about ‘the usual suspects’ – sleep, diet, and exercise. Aim for a minimum of 7 to 8 hours of sleep, ensure you are getting at least half an hour of movement in a few times a week, ensure you are eating healthy meals a few times a day (with an emphasis on plant-based and non-processed options), and reduce and ideally eliminate the use of substances, such as alcohol or smoking.
Another way to effectively manage stress is to incorporate deep breathing and mindful practice into your daily routine. Even just five minutes at a time, a few times a day, can be extremely helpful. If you need help getting started, or a refresher on these techniques, we put together two short videos on mindfulness and 4 stage breathing for guidance.
Finally, learn the basics of cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). CBT is an effective evidence-based stress-management approach, which helps you change unhelpful cognitions (thoughts, feelings, and beliefs) that contribute to your stress. CBT provides strategies for problem-solving to tackle primary stressors in your life (such as finances, relationships, or work-related challenges) and teaches behavioural strategies, like breathing and relaxation, to target the physiological manifestation of your stress.
Stress is no match for a healthy body and mind
Stress can be harmful to our physical and mental well-being when not managed accordingly. But with proper sleep, diet, exercise, and mindfulness and meditation practices, we ensure our body’s innate response is kept in check (and reserved for moments of real threat and danger!).
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published as part of a Globe and Mail “Ask the Psychologist” column authored by Dr. Samra, and has been edited and updated.
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