This is Your Body on Stress


Have you ever gotten to the end of the day, brushed your teeth, tucked yourself into bed and thanked your lucky stars that you made it through the day without your life completely falling off the wheels?

For some (about 26 percent according to the American Psychological Association), that’s how every day feels. In time, this level of stress starts to impact the body and the mind.

The way the body responds to stress has been genetically programmed into us – fight or flight. We respond the same way today when we’re straining to meet a deadline as we did when we were living in caves and being chased by bears (or woolly mammoths – whatever – use your imagination). The only difference is that this response in the body was initially a survival skill, but today, it tends to do more damage than good.

According to the American Psychological Association, the impact of stress on the body can range from triggering migraines to reducing sexual desire. Yikes.

Here’s what a stressed out body looks like:

Tense muscles: Steven Wolf, associate professor in the department of physical and rehabilitative medicine at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, told the New York Times that when people are stressed, they “hold their bodies in a tense, alert pose day after day … The buildup continues each day as the tensions repeat. As time goes on, their neck and shoulder muscles get shorter and shorter.” This kind of tension was meant to protect the body, but when it’s sustained over time, it can often lead to the dreaded migraine.

Heavy breathing: That body’s initial reaction to stress can make one breathe harder. The American Psychological Association says, “That’s not a problem for most people, but for those with asthma or a lung disease such as emphysema, getting the oxygen you need to breathe easier can be difficult.” This increased rate of breathing can also trigger asthma or panic attacks in those who are already prone to them. Listening to your colleague breathe on a conference call? They may be under more stress than you thought.

Increased heart rate: Similar to a workout, The American Psychological Association says acute stress “causes an increase in heart rate and stronger contractions of the heart muscle, with the stress hormones — adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol.” Generally, after the stress passes, the heart rate returns to normal, but “chronic stress, or a constant stress experienced over a prolonged period of time, can contribute to long-term problems for heart and blood vessels.”

Your level of stress, it seems, depends on who you are, the strength of your support system and how much money you have.

According to USA Today, millennials and women are under the most stress and generally that stress is triggered by something financial. When it comes to stress and your bank account, 49 percent of women say “paying for essentials such as food and clothing is a significant source of stress,” while only 38 percent of men report that same stress.

Financial stress’s impact goes beyond the traditional stress reactions – financial stress can often impede the adoption of healthy habits. According to the American Psychological Association, “32 percent of adults say that their finances or lack of money prevent them from living a healthy lifestyle” and 12 percent “said they skipped going to the doctor in the past year when they needed health care because of financial concerns.” (Make sure you check out our financial fitness series if you’re under financial stress or simply trying to avoid it).

So how do we get past this stressful life we’re living? There are a few key ways to dodge the stress-bullets life throws your way.

Find your emotional support system.

The American Psychological Association reports that “Americans who say they have emotional support — specifically, that they have someone they can ask for emotional support if they need it, such as family and friends — report lower stress levels and better related outcomes than those without emotional support.” Whether that’s family, friends or a significant other, it’s important to have people in your life that you can ask for help and offer help in return.

Be mindful of your emotions and what’s causing them.

Sometimes a day of business can cross the line into making you feel some pretty strong feelings. If you’ve ever been so frustrated you cried or so angry you slammed your phone repeatedly, you know the feelings that impassioned people can experience in a business setting. When you’re always working, at times, it’s hard to tell yourself “it’s just business.” Before you react and do the same things you do every time you feel frustrated, angry or jealous (it happens), be mindful of what you’re feeling and think about what’s causing it.

In the book 10% Happier, author Dan Harris talks about how humans have a unique ability to think and know they think. As you experience strong emotions, negative or positive, take a minute to say to yourself (silently) “I’m feeling _____ and it’s being caused by ____.” Then take a few deep breaths and delete that email you started writing. Harris also talks about how meditation helped him to be more mindful of his emotions and his stress. You can start to meditate with these tips.

Make your time at the gym a priority.

While it might feel like an hour or two away from your desk will actually be detrimental to your stressful situation or won’t help you with your workload, the opposite tends to be true. An article in Harvard Business Review reports that there is “a clear relationship between physical activity that is planned, structured, repetitive and purposive” and the elusive work/life balance.

Harvard Business Review also suggests stress management through exercise, which can help keep stress at the level at which it enhances performance rather than getting to the point where “creativity fizzles out and frustration sets in.”

Put that sweat session in your calendar and guard that time with your stressed-out heart. It’s one meeting you can’t afford to miss.

How do you manage your stress?

Mental Health Think & Feel

About Jeana Anderson Cohen

Jeana Anderson Cohen is the founder and CEO of a premiere wellness media destination that creates content and community to help womxn live better lives and achieve their goals. Before founding health-focused companies Jeana earned a degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison - and fresh out of college she worked on the '08 Obama campaign in Michigan. From there, she created and executed social media strategies for brands. aSweatLife fuses her experience in building community and her passion for wellness. You can find Jeana leading the team at aSweatLife, trying to join a book club, and walking her dog Maverick.