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How Does Stress Affect Health? Is It Taking Years Off Your Life?

By Expert Author: Goutam Roy

We all know that stress can put wrinkles on your face but is it taking years off your life? In order to know this, you must be able to answer the following question, “Just how does stress affect health?”
Nature has endowed us with a “fight or flight” mechanism. That’s not a bad thing – actually, it’s a good thing. Not that we want to be fighting or fleeing from danger all the time, but, it means that we have the capability to handle extreme situations when called upon to do so. We have been hardwired with this mechanism to protect us from physical danger. So, what happens inside of us when we are threatened with physical harm? Adrenaline pumps through our veins, causing our heart to race, pupils to dilate, muscles to swell and focus to narrow; these reactions are great—if we are soldiers stationed in Iraq.
The problem in today’s world is that we are stuck in “fight or flight” mode all the time despite the fact that we are rarely in physical danger. Instead of saber tooth tigers attacking us, it’s a missed deadline, a nasty boss or another rotten traffic jam that threatens our well-being. Having evolved into a largely civilized society, we have moved from the constant threat of physical danger to mostly psychological, economic and social danger. But our body cannot tell the difference—and the cumulative stress of so many “daily” attacks creates adrenal fatigue, physical exhaustion and emotional burnout. Why? Because the “fight or flight” mechanism was designed to protect us from physical harm, not emotional, mental and spiritual stress. It places too much demand on our physical body and the body cannot handle the constant surge of stress hormones and nervous system activation.
How Does Stress Take Its Toll On Our Physical Body?
The body is like a chain, made of intertwined links. When stress is applied to both ends of the chain (like what happens when we are stuck in “fight or flight”), there is always a weak link that gives way first. Depending on your genetics, the following signs and symptoms may indicate unhealthy levels of stress and represent your “broken” link.
• 1) Headaches
• 2) High blood pressure
• 3) Autoimmune disorders (like Lupus, Rheumatoid arthritis and Ulcerative Colitis)
• 4) Premature Aging
• 5) Teeth grinding
• 6) Irritable bowel syndrome
• 7) Nervous ticks
• 8) Migraine headaches
• 9) Skin rashes or eczema
There are many more, but these are just a few of the more common manifestations of stress.
Is Our Hardwired Survival Mechanism Actually Threatening Our Survival?
Because the fight or flight response is so critical to our physical survival, it was designed with a very peculiar feature: it is not activated by real danger but rather by the mere perception of danger, threat or harm. Unfortunately, our perceptions are so easily influenced by our feelings, fears and thoughts in any given moment; they are often inaccurate and misinformed.
What does this mean? It means that quite often, we perceive danger where none exists. We feel threatened by situations that are in fact, harmless. The result is that, sadly, most of us live in a perpetual state of anxiety and hyper vigilance – making it a way of life. We are not even aware that this emotional state has become normal. It’s kind of like driving out to the country, getting out of the car and realizing just how peaceful the “sound of quiet” is. You don’t realize how much background noise there is in your life, until you step away from it, which most of us never do.
Perhaps Mark Twain stated it best, when he said, “I’ve experienced many terrible things in my life, a few of which actually happened.” It is the perception of harm, the fear of loss and the advanced worrying that creates an indelible strain on our mind and body.
Now that you know how stress affects your health, here are a few steps you can take to live a more serene, healthier way of life – one which can add quality years to your life!
Here’s Some Simple Ways To Counter Stress
• 1) Surround yourself with people who support you, love you, and genuinely have your best interest at heart. That means, getting rid of jealous girlfriends, people who make “jokes” at your expense, lovers (or anyone) who criticize you constantly.
• 2) Make time for meditation. Meditation is extremely calming. You don’t have to set aside hours to meditate for it to be a stress reliever. Start with 3-10 minutes and then work your way up. Focus only on your breathing and clear your mind of all else.
• 3) Keep an attitude of gratitude. Studies by psychiatrist, Dr. Daniel Amen, M.D., reveal that by focusing on all of the things you are grateful for, you literally change the pattern of blood flow in your brain, which can show the “picture” of gratitude on 3-dimensional spectrographs of the brain.
• 4) Check in with yourself frequently. Ask yourself, “How am I feeling”? When you are aware of your feelings, you can take better care of yourself.
• 5) Exercise! Nothing beats stress like physical exertion. It relaxes your body, mind and spirit. You don’t have to exercise for a long time, just enough to work up a sweat. Why does exercise work? Because vigorous exercise (like fighting or fleeing) is the natural conclusion to the primitive fight or flight mechanism. It was how the fight or flight was designed to be shut off.
• 6) Watch your perceptions. They are critical to your health. Remember the fight or flight system is activated by the mere perception of danger, threat or harm. So when you feel your emotional tension rising, ask yourself, “Am I really in danger?” “Is this situation really a threat to my survival?” “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” Rate your answers on a scale of 1 to 10. If the number is high, get to work and take action to solve the situation. If it’s a low number, maybe it’s time to just “let it go.”
Now when someone asks you, “How does stress affect health,” you can impress them with what you’ve learned.
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