Do you feel that whenever something's wrong with your health, doctors say that stress is the root of the problem? In fact, because we frequently hear how 'just about everything under the sun' is related to stress, we stop believing it.
And that's where the danger lurks – in ignoring the long-term exposure to stressful situations, which can seriously damage our health, and even end our lives.
For example, emotional stress is a major contributing factor to the six leading causes of death in the United States , such as:
- Coronary heart disease
- Accidental injuries
- Liver cirrhosis
- Mental disorders leading to suicide
- Respiratory disorders
Stress is normal. Until it's not.
Even though there isn’t a definition of stress that everyone agrees upon, the most common concept involves mental, physical, or emotional strain or tension. We tend to focus only on the negative aspects of stress, but the fact is, stress is not always harmful.
For example, at normal levels, stress can increase our productivity. Events like childbirth, a wedding, a promotion at work, or watching a football championship game are stressful, yet they have positive outcomes.
Sources of stress are regular companions in our daily lives that can’t be avoided. Challenges and exciting or difficult situations cannot be removed from life, and the human response to them is what we call stress. However, our stress response can be good or bad, and that makes a difference to our overall health.
"We humans are very good at facing a challenge, solving a situation, or reaching out to someone to get support," says Rajita Sinha, Ph.D., director of Yale Medicine's Interdisciplinary Stress Center. "We're wired to respond to stress and remove it, sometimes even automatically. But life has become more complex, and many situations don't have easy answers."
Acute-turned-chronic stress: Our nerves in a fast-paced society
The age of fast-paced work and life, underpinned by rapid technological advancements, generates more stressful situations, much more than our bodies perceive as 'normal.' Here's what happens in our 'stress center,' the autonomic nervous system (ANS).
The ANS controls physiological processes like heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, respiration, and digestion, and it influences hormonal release. It has four branches, the following two, of which, are critical for stress and sleep management:
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS), responsible for arousal, activity, and stress, is called the "fight or flight" system. This ancient mammal 'survival mechanism' reacts to anything the body perceives as a threat by increasing the heart rate, arterial stiffness, blood pressure, and breathing rate.
The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is responsible for calmness, resting, and sleep and is also called the "rest and digest" system. The opposite of the SNS, the PNS calms the body, lowering blood pressure, slowing heart and breathing rates, and so on.
Learn about the ANS in our blog Inside the stress and sleep control panel: The autonomic nervous system explained
The problem with our modern, high-paced society is two-fold:
- Our PNS is not activated frequently enough and becomes too silent. This creates an imbalance in our mood, hormonal levels, heart rate, blood pressure, sleep, recovery, and overall performance.
- Our 'fight or flight' response – or acute stress response - is turned on for too long and way too often. As a result, our SNS is pushed into overdrive, and we suffer from chronic stress. Worse, we tend to ignore this constant stress overload. That doesn't mean the body is spared from its negative implications, however.
Head to toe: How chronic stress damages our whole body
We already talked about the deadly consequences of prolonged exposure to stress. However, there's other damage that can be done. While not all of these are a ‘worst case’ in the final stage, they are still severe conditions that affect our health much more than we think.
Chronic stress is the enemy of health and performance impacting everything in our body – from nerves, sleep, skin, heart, muscles, and respiratory, gastrointestinal, and reproductive systems, to our immunity and mental health.
Here are just some among its many negative effects [2,3,4,5,6]:
- Permanent arousal of the ANS
- Increased level of cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline
- Increased blood pressure
- High risk for coronary heart disease
- Oxidative stress
- Increased inflammation
- Long-term shortening of DNA protecting telomeres and accelerated aging
- Memory loss
- Impulsive decision making and overall cognitive performance
PNS, activated on demand: Prevent chronic stress with resonance breathing
The good news about chronic stress is that it can be easily prevented. You can even continue to live in modern society (and don't have to move to a mountaintop with no phone or people around). Still, it will require some serious changes in your lifestyle.
Typical advice includes a healthy diet, regular workouts, emotional balance, and mindfulness practices. If that sounds easier said than done, here's how you can kick-start your chronic stress prevention in under 10 minutes a day with an enjoyable, and insanely-effective, practice.
Meet the art and science of resonance breathing – a deep, slow-breathing technique that perfectly syncs heart and breathing rate, activates your PNS on demand, and helps you manage stress.
Moreover, combine resonance breathing with Oxa – the only wearable that monitors your heart, breathing rate, and heart rate variability (HRV) in real time. This enables you to optimize powerful breathing exercises in each session for maximum results.
Check it out here.
 Salleh, Mohd Razali. "Life event, stress and illness." The Malaysian journal of medical sciences: MJMS 15.4 (2008): 9.
 Steptoe, Andrew, and Mika Kivimäki. "Stress and cardiovascular disease." Nature Reviews Cardiology 9.6 (2012): 360-370.
 Liu, Mei-Yan, et al. "Association between psychosocial stress and hypertension: a systematic review and meta-analysis." Neurological research 39.6 (2017): 573-580.
 Gasperin, Daniela, et al. "Effect of psychological stress on blood pressure increase: a meta-analysis of cohort studies." Cadernos de saude publica 25.4 (2009): 715-726.
 Yegorov, Yegor E., et al. "The link between chronic stress and accelerated aging." Biomedicines 8.7 (2020): 198.
 LeBlanc, Vicki R. "The effects of acute stress on performance: implications for health professions education." Academic Medicine 84.10 (2009): S25-S33.
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