What is Stress and How Does It Affect My Body?

What is stress? 

Coined and studied extensively by researcher Hans Selye, stress is much more than just a word. So impressive have his findings and theories been that some authorities refer to him as "the Einstein of medicine." We hear about stress all the time, and so we tend to ignore its importance to us and to our physical bodies.

What does Stress do to your body? 

Stress suppresses the parasympathetic portion of our nervous systems which is responsible for

  • resting respiratory rate
  • resting (lowered) blood pressure
  • digestion - increased salivation and pancreatic secretions and gastrointestinal motility
  • dilates coronary arteries
  • stimulates tear production

Stress stimulates the sympathetic portion of our nervous system.

This is the part of our nervous system that is responsible for

  • the fight-or-flight syndrome

  • increased heart rate
  • increased respiratory rate
  • increased blood pressure
  • restricts our blood vessels (vasoconstriction)
  • shunts blood from "non-critical" functions
  • inhibits digestion through decreased gastrointestinal motility and decreased salivation and pancreatic secretions
  • inhibits elimination
  • stimulates the adrenal glands to release stress-related hormones

Even low levels of stress and job anxiety have been shown to push the body into this fight/flight pattern. The stress response of the body is somewhat like an airplane readying for take-off. Virtually all systems (eg, the heart and blood vessels, the immune system, the lungs, the digestive system, the sensory organs, and brain) are modified to meet the perceived danger.

Long-term stress to the body from any source, or stressor, raises levels of the natural hormone cortisol in your bloodstream. Cortisol is a steroid produced by the adrenals glands, and elevated levels of it in your body will eventually produce permanent changes in your tissues.

Common physical symptoms of too much job stress include

  • headaches
  • stomach ailments
  • back pain
  • insomnia and
  • fatigue.

Stress can also aggravate high blood pressure, asthma and diabetes. In addition, stress can cause feelings of exhaustion, anger and anxiety, and it can lead to increased use of alcohol, tobacco and over-the-counter drugs.

Overcoming job-related stress

involves recognizing the sources of stress on your job and learning how to gain control over them.

It's not about how much stress you have, but about the ways you use to relieve it that count

Start with these anti-stress suggestions

  • Look for ways to make your work more interesting or challenging
  • Change the structure of your day, rotate tasks, and even alternate between sitting and standing
  • Be aware of the time of day when you are most productive
  • Take a break whenever your energy is about to diminish
  • Add stress-relieving activities

If those suggestions are not practical for you because of the job that you have, maybe these additional suggestions will be helpful:

  • When you take a break, get some fresh air or close your eyes and breathe deeply to allow your body to relax
  • Relieve physical tension by taking your shoes off and massaging your feet with a golf ball, or squeezing a tennis ball in your hands
  • Have regular massage to manage your stress levels; massage is like medicine; it only works when you take it
  • Set aside time for daily recreation. Meditation and creative pursuits are also excellent activities for reducing stress.