May is Mental Health Awareness month.
There are many facets that influence mental health, such as your relationships, amount of sleep you get, and your stress level. Stress can affect the whole body if not properly managed.
Stress in particular is important to focus on because high stress can lead to increased cortisol levels. Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress. The release of cortisol raises blood sugar levels and prevents release of insulin. This is important because it allows energy to be readily available during a stressful situation. However, if the body is stressed for long periods of time, it can have a negative impact on bodily systems.
Chronic stress can lead to chronic inflammation, which is the root of all disease. Specifically, chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer are all associated with chronic inflammation. As mentioned above, blood sugar levels are increased for energy during the stressful situation, but if levels stay elevated over time, it becomes a risk factor for type 2 diabetes. Excess cortisol can also lead to fat accumulation around the belly. This occurs because glucose (energy) stays in the blood stream rather than being used for energy in cells, which gives a false sense of hunger leading to overeating.
Consistently high stress can also lead to high blood pressure. Stress hormones cause blood vessels to constrict and increase heart rate, making it more difficult for the heart to pump blood to the rest of the body. High blood pressure is a risk factor for heart disease due to the stress it places on the heart. Additionally, constricting the blood vessels for prolonged periods of time can lead to vessel damage and buildup of plaque, which contributes to risk of having a heart attack.
Another consequence of chronic stress is headaches. When stressed, your muscles are tight and ready to act– think fight or flight. Consistently tight muscles, like clenching your jaw or raising your shoulders, can lead to headaches.
Finally, high stress levels over time can result in a depressed immune system. Cortisol is crucial in managing inflammation, but when it becomes chronically high, the immune system never gets a break. This reduces immune function, making the body more susceptible to catching colds and other illnesses.
As you can see, stress takes a toll on the whole body. Managing stress levels is critical for both mental and physical wellbeing.
5 tips for reducing stress:
It is recommended to participate in moderate to vigorous physical activity for 150 or 75 minutes per week, respectively. According to a study by Cooney, Dwan and Mead, exercise was associated with decreased symptoms of depression compared to other treatments tested. Exercising reduces the body’s stress hormones and produces endorphins which boost mood. Walking and yoga are great ways to get in some moderate activity.
2) Get enough sleep:
Adults should aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night. While you sleep, your body uses this time to rest, repair cells and store memories. Roughly one in three Americans are sleep deprived, which in turn increases stress levels. Set yourself up for success by setting an alarm for 30 minutes to an hour before you should go to bed to give yourself time to begin winding down.
3) Meditation and deep breathing:
Starting your day with deep breathing exercises, meditation or yoga is a great way to reduce stress. This allows your muscles to relax and brings your focus to your breath. Deep breathing leads to decreased cortisol levels, heart rate and blood pressure. Continue these deep breaths throughout the day for continued stress reduction.
4) Spend time with loved ones:
Having a network of friends and family to spend time with provides social support. This social support provides a coping mechanism to deal with stress.
Keep your spirits up by having a sense of humor and laughing frequently. Even better if you can do this while spending time with your friends and family! Bennett, Zeller, Rosenberg and McCann found that laughter may reduce self-reported stress in women.