Stress enters our lives in a variety of ways. Sometimes stress is positive and associated with good events (moving into your dream home; getting married), but most of the stress we face comes from negative sources.
What stresses each of us psychologically will be different, but the impact of that stress is more universal. Understanding stress, its impact on the body, and how to manage it are key to long-term wellness.
Types of Stress
There are different types of stress and today we will cover three of the most common ones: Acute, Episodic Acute, and Chronic Stress.
This is the type of short-term stress that most, if not all of us, have experienced multiple times in our lives. You have a work conference to attend and an accident on the road has completely locked up traffic. Or you realize that the deadline for a report you need to finish is actually tomorrow and not the day after.
This type of stress is ordinary and our bodies and minds can usually overcome it quickly. While blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle tension may be heightened for a time, they will return to normal levels soon after the source of stress passes. It is an extension of our fight-flight-freeze response (which is fittingly also known as the “acute stress response”)
Episodic Acute Stress
When stress is more frequent, or we have a tendency to recollect and reexperience past stresses, we enter into the realm of episodic acute stress. The physical responses are similar to regular acute stress, but you may notice that your body is more tense on average and you tend to experience more worry and irritability.
Episodic acute stress can arise from problems with your job or a relationship, among other sources. Too much of this form of stress for too long can ultimately give rise to chronic stress.
This type of stress is long-term and notably different from the first two. It often takes years of recurring, accumulating stress or traumatic life events to reach this point. Whether primarily due to lacking adequate stress management skills or particularly difficult circumstances, we shift away from trying to change and improve our situation and start accommodating the stress instead.
The result is no longer a temporary physiological change but a disease with lasting harmful effects on the body and mind. Chronic stress alters the norms for your body and eventually leads to an increased risk of illness.
Your Heart and Stress Management
Our heart is one of the primary recipients of stress’s effects on the body. Alongside adrenaline, the hormone cortisol is released into our bodies in response to stress. Elevated cortisol over time can affect inflammation and blood sugar management, along with heightened blood pressure and blood flow issues due to increased clotting and coagulation, putting more strain on the heart.
You may remember that we discussed the link between kidney disease and hypertension in our kidney health tips email earlier in March. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, according to the CDC, and hypertension is one of the most threatening medical conditions that leads to heart disease. This makes managing blood pressure important for all of us before we reach a point where it is regularly elevated and becomes hypertension.
Here are some easy, daily methods for managing stress before it builds up to an unhealthy level:
Create a List and Plan Ahead
If you feel overwhelmed by tasks and projects at work and home, start by making a list of things that need doing. Then reorder the list so that the most important things are at the top of the list. Do the highest importance task first and be realistic about the time it will take.
Make Time for Relaxing
Taking a few minutes for a hot shower can help relax your body and mind when the stress is on. Other relaxation methods you can use at any time are meditation or practicing deep breathing. Try to allow yourself to focus on a single object or thought that isn’t demanding (a tree or lyric from a song you like, for example) and give yourself a few minutes to remain in that mental space.
Allow Yourself Physical Activity
Exercise is great for shedding stress and even 15-20 minutes of walking can make a huge difference in clearing your mind. Stretching is also helpful for managing stress; take the time to stretch your quads and hamstrings before you start your walk to get a head start on helping yourself to decompress.
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Stress management and caring for your heart are important throughout your life. By starting good habits today and building upon them your quality of life and daily wellness will improve in the months and years to come.