If the outbreak of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) has you stressed, you’re not alone. Fear and anxiety about a disease can be overwhelming, causing strong emotions in adults and children. Below, we discuss the effects of stress and provide tips for caring for your body during stressful situations.
The Effects of Stress ON the body
Stress hormones trigger your body’s fight-or-flight response, which can help you cope with potentially serious situations by increasing your heart rate and readying your muscles to respond. However, when stress levels are elevated for prolonged periods of time, it can take a serious toll on your health. Symptoms of stress include:
- Irritability and anxiety – Your central nervous system (CNS) is in charge of your fight-or-flight response. In most cases, the hypothalamus (the part of the brain that controls the stress hormones that rev up your response in an emergency) tells all systems to return to normal when the perceived fear is gone. However, if the stressor doesn’t go away or the CNS doesn’t work properly, the prolonged fight-or-flight response can lead to irritability or anxiety.
- Respiratory and cardiovascular issues – Stress can cause you to breathe faster in an effort to quickly distribute more oxygen-rich blood to your body. This response helps protect your body in an emergency by preparing you to react, but it can make it harder to breathe and causes your blood pressure to rise, which in turn, can increase the risk of having a stroke or heart attack.
- Tight muscles, aches and pains – When you’re stressed, your muscles tense up to protect your body from injury. They tend to release again once you relax, but if you’re constantly under stress, your muscles may not get the chance to relax. Chronically tight muscles can cause neck pain, back pain, shoulder pain and headaches.
- Headaches – During stressful events, certain chemicals in the brain are released to combat the situation (known as the fight-or-flight response). The release of these chemicals can cause vascular changes that can lead to tension headaches and migraines. Repressed or bottled up emotions surrounding stress, such as anxiety, worry, excitement and fatigue, can also increase muscle tension and make migraines worse.
- Weak immune systems – People under chronic stress are typically more susceptible to viral illnesses like the flu and the common cold, as well as other infections due to high levels of cortisol (stress hormones). Stress can also increase the time it takes to recover from an illness or injury.
- Gastrointestinal (GI) issues – Stress can wreck havoc on your gut and digestive system, leading to short-term issues like loss of appetite, overeating, constipation, diarrhea, indigestion and upset stomachs. Chronic stress (over prolonged periods) can also lead to more serious issues like irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, colitis and other GI disorders.
Tips for Managing Stress
Fortunately, there are several steps you can take to manage stress and lead a healthier life.
- Chiropractic care – Chiropractic services, such as adjustments or manipulation, trigger point dry needling and soft tissue therapy, can help release muscle tension, soothe irritated spinal nerves and improve blood circulation—changes that can often alert the brain to switch off the fight-or-flight response and help your body relax.
- Massage therapy – Regular massages can rebalance your hormones and release muscle tension caused by stress. Research also shows that it can lower your heart rate and blood pressure, as well as increase the production of “feel good” endorphins, serotonin and dopamine.
- Regular exercise – Your body can fight off stress better when it’s physically fit. Consider going for a walk, lifting weights or swimming for at least 30 minutes most days per week to stay active and keep your body in shape.
- Relaxation techniques – Yoga, meditation and Tai Chi are great relaxation techniques for managing stress. Practicing these methods for even a few minutes each day can provide a sense of overall calmness as well as ease anxiety.
- Adequate rest – In addition to regular exercise, your body needs proper time to recover. Give your body the rest it needs by taking breaks when necessary and getting at least 7-9 hours of sleep (more for children and teens) each night.
- Proper nutrition – As mentioned, chronic stress can make you more susceptible to viral illnesses, GI issues and infections. Consuming “junk food” actually increases the volume of stress on your body and contributes to other health issues. Consider reaching for foods that offer adequate nutrients and promote good gut bacteria, such as prebiotics and probiotics. Fruits and vegetables with inulin, like asparagus, bananas, garlic and onions, contain prebiotics. Fermented foods, like kefir, kimchi, kombucha, sauerkraut and yogurt are great sources of probiotics.
- Avoid drugs and alcohol – If you typically reach for a cigarette or a glass of wine when you’re stressed, it’s time to rethink your coping technique. Drugs, alcohol and tobacco can stress your body out even more and often lead to more serious issues like heart disease, liver disease, respiratory diseases and GI issues.
In today’s world it’s easy to find things to stress about. While it’s impossible to completely eliminate all stress, the strategies above can help you combat some of its effects and prevent long-term damage. For more information or to schedule an appointment, call 712-249-8231.
We originally presented the above information to teachers and staff at Riverside High School as part of an in-service learning day on Feb. 19, 2020. Per request, we recapped the information on our blog. If you’re interested in having us out to your organization or place of work for a similar presentation, please contact us. We love sharing tips for helping people live healthier lives!