How Stress Affects Your Body

By Barbara Poczyniak, R.Ac

min read

We’ve all been stressed and felt the signs of stress at some point in our lives: worrying thoughts, racing heartbeat, muscle tension, shallow breathing or poor sleep. 

After a while, prolonged stress may lead to headaches, digestive upset and change our mood.  Sometimes, it might go on long enough to cause anxiety, panic attacks or bouts of depression. When it becomes prolonged and starts to affect us at a deeper level, this is known as chronic stress. 

Stress is now estimated to be a key factor in up to 80% of all illnesses. Studies have found that even if chronic stress isn’t the cause of an illness, it can often worsen the symptoms that are already present. Although some of us recognize the obvious stressors in our life pretty easily, we’re not often aware of the subtle differences of what might actually be causing stress in our bodies. 

The 3 main types of stressors

Lifestyle stressors 

These can be a wide variety of things around us.  They can be big or small. Often they are just considered a part of life, like a demanding job or school schedule, finances, family challenges or balancing work and personal time.  Maybe these are temporary, like a busy month at work or they are with us for longer than that. We consider these inevitable and often they might even motivate us to do our best work.

Everyday stressors

These are the everyday stress “noise” we often overlook, such as traffic, deadlines or even just listening to the daily news. These are tricky – because they can come disguised as something else, maybe even something as “innocent” as social media (the FOMO effect). We may find ourselves seeking these out, or using them as a distraction – but they can actually be stress inducing. 

Silent or hidden stressors

For some people, there may also be “silent stressors” such as old traumas that have been buried for a long time, or other emotional issues that are not being fully processed or dealt with. Although we may not be fully acknowledging these as stress, our body remembers them this way.

Together, these can all contribute to an ever growing snowball of stress – one that we learn to carefully balance.  Until one day, maybe we can’t.  Perhaps at some point the balancing act starts to slip, or one event pushes it all too far.  The combination of factors can start to overwhelm the body and show up as chronic stress.  It might feel as we are still getting through, but the body starts to function in chronic stress mode. And chronic stress is what can really affect our health. 

Stress and the Fight or Flight Response

When our bodies perceive a potential danger, our nervous system goes into the “fight or flight mode” to protect us. This is a lifesaving strategy, and stress is absolutely a part of keeping us safe from harm in serious situations.

In this mode, the brain’s stress hormones (including cortisol and adrenaline) send signals to our nervous system telling it to increase heart rate, blood pressure and breathing capacity. At the same time, digestion and relaxation response are de-activated temporarily.  The body knows we won’t be eating or sleeping when there is danger looming.

But what happens when we are receiving these signals constantly?  Eventually our bodies can no longer tell the difference between a real threat and a perceived one. What happens when our environment is causing us to react this way all the time, whether or not the threat is a real danger? What happens when our bodies get used to these stress messages? 

The Cycle of Chronic Stress

If stress signals are coming from all directions, there can be an overload affect. There comes a point when the body can no longer tell which danger signals are an actual threat.  The body may start sending out stress hormones in response to all stress triggers at the same rate.  We become sensitized to over-respond to constant emergencies – but in many cases these are actually minor problems.

To make matters worse, a cycle of chronic stress often links to cravings and lack of resolve.  If we are chronically stressed, we may be more likely to eat poorly, sleep poorly, be over-tired and over-caffeinated. All of these can make our reactions to stressors all the more aggravated.  This type of overexposure to stress hormones can negatively disrupt all of our body’s processes.

How Acupuncture Helps You Cope with Stress

Acupuncture and other bodywork can be an asset in managing your body’s reaction to stress. It can even help reverse the negative effects of chronic stress that are already affecting health. This energy treatment takes you out of “flight or fight mode” by stimulating the relaxation response. This body response is similar to what you would feel during and after activities such as meditation.  It is essentially a re-boot button for your body and mind. 

Most people report a deeply relaxing sensation during and after acupuncture – usually they go on to have a deep, restful sleep that night.  After a series of sessions, many patients that have been struggling with chronic stress report feeling calmer, more rested and refreshed.  They ultimately feel better equipped to deal with everyday stressful situations.

Acupuncture works in such a way that it supports the body’s optimal balance, allowing  us to sleep better, digest better and handle emotions in a healthier way.  Although it can’t actually reduce stress in your environment, it can help body and mind re-set and repair.  Acupuncture can help you feel better and re-frame your ability to handle stress better. It can help break down negative affects of the chronic stress cycle.

What Next?

If you have more questions on how Acupuncture may help with stress relief, take me up on our free 15 minute consult call

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