How Stress Influences Your Body (And How To Press The Brake Pedal)

Stress. Even just seeing the word might make you feel uneasy. More and more people are experiencing what stress does to our physical and mental health. The modern world, it seems, asks a lot of us. But is that bad? We want to tell you more in this blog about the different forms of stress, the influence it has on your physical processes and give you tips to allow your body to rest.

What is stress

In a nutshell, stress is the experience of tension or pressure. It is your body’s response to coping with a changing environment. It is a normal and useful process. But still, it affects you and can have an impact on your health. We all experience stress to a greater or lesser extent. 

Stress activates various unconscious physical processes. When your body senses danger, it activates the stress system, or the sympathetic nervous system.

Think of this as your accelerator. Your body produces adrenaline and cortisol, which causes your heart rate and breathing to speed up. You are more alert and more blood flows to your heart and muscles. Your body is getting ready to fight or to run away. 

Ideally, this stress reaction is only active for a short period of time and then another system, the parasympathetic nervous system, comes into play. Think of this as your brake pedal and the counterpart to the stress system: the system that takes care of recovery.

Your blood pressure drops, your heart rate goes down and your muscles relax. Damaged tissue recovers and your immune system strengthens.

And while the functioning of the gastrointestinal system was reduced because of the danger, it now gets the space to digest again. In short: your body and mind regain their balance.

So far, so good. As long as the above systems alternate and are given equal space, stress mainly works to your advantage.

When is stress unhealthy?

If you continuously press your accelerator without braking and giving yourself a chance to recover, you exhaust yourself physically. This can happen because, for example, we ask too much of ourselves and are under stress for too long, at work, at home or when studying.

How does stress manifest itself physically?

Chronic stress can cause various complaints. These include fatigue, irritability, difficulty relaxing, nausea, irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, (recurring) infections, insomnia, palpitations, hyperventilation, high blood pressure, premenstrual syndrome, headaches, stomach aches, anxiety and chronic pain.

It is worthwhile looking at whether stress is the cause of these (sometimes misunderstood) complaints and how you can give the recovery system more space to do its work. And even better: how you can learn to use recovery preventively. This will make your life a lot more fun!

Do you experience stress?

When people in the consulting room are asked if they experience stress, most will say no. But if you keep digging, the answer might be a bit different.

Many people think that someone suffering from stress runs around like a headless chicken. But in many cases, stress manifests itself in ways you don’t even realise. If you literally and figuratively stand still for a moment, you can better understand the speed at which you are running. 

Are you looking for support in finding a healthy balance? Book a consultation with one of our doctors. We will be happy to help you. 

8 tips for putting your foot on the brake

So, brake more often and build in more rest. But how do you do that?

1. Make time for activities that improve your recovery

Try to do something every day that helps you relax. This can be anything that works for you. Maybe meditating or having a massage, but it might also be listening to music, walking, painting, writing, making love, going to bed on time, reading, etc. It also helps to be with friends or family and to cuddle. This releases the love hormone oxytocin which breaks down the stress hormone cortisol.

2. Listen to your body’s signals

You can only anticipate stress if you know how your body reacts to it. Try not to live inside your head all the time, but use the signals your body gives you as a guide. The following exercise can help you be more aware of physical tension:

– Sit or lie down quietly. Gradually breathe in and out more slowly.
– Let your thoughts come and go. Slowly try to move your attention to your body.
– How do your feet and legs feel? Breathe out slowly and relax your muscles.
– Are your thighs tense? What about your buttocks? How do your hips feel? 
– The moment you become aware of any tension, relax your muscles. If you can’t feel it clearly, try tightening your muscles for five seconds and then letting them go.
– Slowly work your way up per body part. From the abdomen to the chest, shoulders, arms and face.

3. Use your breathing

Breathing is a powerful tool that can help you press your brake pedal and calm yourself down. Unfortunately, many people (often unconsciously) breathe too quickly and superficially, which activates the accelerator and uses up unnecessary energy.

By simply breathing out longer than you breathe in, you ease off your accelerator and can experience more calm. Read our blog about breathing if you want to learn more (and start practising!).

4. Drink lots of water and little caffeine

Caffeine can increase or intensify stress. Think of coffee, black and green tea, energy drinks, cola (even without sugar) and chocolate. Try to avoid these products and if you consume them, preferably not after 15:00 in the afternoon.

5. Eat less often and more slowly

Every time you eat, your body goes to work processing the food. Not just your stomach, intestines and digestive organs, but also your immune system are activated.

With every meal, your gut makes contact with your immune system. Is it safe? Can we process and absorb it or do we need to get rid of this substance as quickly as possible?

Eating too often and too quickly puts your body to work constantly. Eating less often (preferably three healthy, nutritious meals a day) and eating slowly give your body and gut peace and reduce stress.

6. Stop smoking

Smoking a cigarette might feel relaxing, but in fact the opposite is true. Nicotine is a short-acting substance that fuels your stress system.

One hour after your last cigarette, your brain registers that the nicotine has run out. Your brain’s reaction? Acute stress. The moment you smoke another cigarette, you temporarily switch off this acute stress (the familiar feeling of relaxation), but then the cycle repeats itself.

Don’t hesitate to get help if you want to stop smoking. Your GP can advise and support you.

7. Keep moving

Enough exercise is important for your body to recover from stress, but not all exercise is equally good. A vigorous cardio- or interval training is good for your fitness and muscle strength, but does not always help you relax. 

We recommend moving several times a day at a low (calm) heart rate. Think of walking or yoga.

Tip: it has been scientifically proven that exercising in nature works even better. In Japan this is called Shinrin yoku: forest bathing. So try to find some nature!

8. Be grateful and think positive

In general, we tend to focus on negative emotions, which – yes, you guessed it – our stress system enjoys. Instead, try to focus on the positive things in life. Be grateful.

At the end of each day, write down three things that went well and that you are grateful for, no matter how big or small they are. Try to actually feel the gratitude. If you do this regularly, you will notice that your attitude is more positive. A sign that you are more balanced.

In addition, the intention and feeling with which you start the day determines your level of happiness and thus your stress level. Do you have a busy day ahead? Try to approach it positively, with peace, love and joy. This is not always easy, but it is worth the effort.

We are here for you

There are many factors in life that can cause stress, such as your relationships, work or finances. These factors are not always easy to influence.

A stress-free life is an illusion and, as we said at the beginning of this blog, not even desirable. Start working on the tips above. Book a consultation if you would like to know more or discuss your situation with one of our doctors who are experts in healthy lifestyles.