Your heart is pumping, breathing is rapid, adrenaline kicking in, tension building, emotions heightened—you’re irritable, frustrated or angry, and maybe ready to blow—all symptoms of stress. Multiply this by frequent occurrences, and you have a recipe for long-term problems.
Physiological characteristics of chronic stress include a constant output of potentially damaging hormones, our mind remains in an agitated state, and the brain and body adapts to this state and becomes hyper-sensitized, according to Dr. Rob Rutledge, Faculty of Medicine, Dalhousie University.
We can become trapped in a vicious cycle. The stress leads to poor sleep, leading to irritability, resulting in any stressor setting us off again and more easily, causing impaired social functioning, and the cycle continues. This becomes our normal way of being—trapped in high gear and wearing ourselves out in the process.
At this point, a person may feel depressed, and have difficulty with concentration, memory, planning, rationalizing and anxiety, in addition to developing physical problems.
Over the long-term, physical effects of chronic stress mute the normal stress reaction, and affect all areas of the body, which causes vulnerability to infection. It’s also linked to chronic fatigue syndrome, inflammatory disease, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and brain damage—including destruction of brain cells, impairing learning and memory.
When we’re under stress, excess fats and sugars are released into the bloodstream, placing a burden on our cardiovascular system. According to experts, the heightened physical response also causes rhythm changes leading to wear and tear of the heart, as a result of working faster and more forcefully during this period.
Also, when researchers looked at the part of DNA that controls cell aging (the telomere) of people experiencing chronic stress, they found evidence of premature aging. Those with the highest stress levels had telomeres shorter on average by the equivalent of at least one decade of additional aging compared to people with low stress.
The bottom line is, “Stress affects every cell in the body,” indicates Rutledge. So it’s essential to allow ourselves time to recuperate from this affect.
The ideal stress pattern is waves of arousal, followed by relaxation. This gives our body a chance to recover from the resources depleted from stress, such as replenishing hormones and chemicals released from the brain, a calmer heart rhythm and blood flow, and stimulated digestion.
Dr. Doug Saunders of the University of Toronto refers to time for rejuvenation as, “Islands of peace,” and stresses its importance. “You need islands of peace in your daily life, where the parasympathetic nervous system can do what it needs to do. This just isn’t about the absence of stress, it’s about actively doing something that’s restful and rebuilding, activities that positively absorb your attention so that you lose track of time.”
Saunders suggests classics like yoga and meditation, in addition to activities such as gardening, reading, painting—things you find pleasurable and can lose yourself in (other than television, which doesn’t reduce stress because your brain doesn’t fully rest).
In addition, exercise burns off the increased fats and sugars in your bloodstream and stimulates needed hormones. Nutrients—through a healthy diet and supplements—helps your body to cope and replenish itself. The goal is to incorporate a variety of support, including what may be the biggest challenge for some – permission for time to recoup from the daily grind.
“We’ve lost our ability to put limits around the demands on us,” says Saunders. “Shutting off your computer, routing those incoming calls to voicemail and pursuing ‘islands of peace’ activities: this requires a concerted, conscious effort.” And it’s worth every effort to maintain our health now and over the long run.
Cheryl Patterson has a B.A. in Psychology and has researched the area of stress for over ten years. For more on Cheryl visit www.cherylpatterson.ca.