The effect stress has on our bodies
One Monday evening I was teaching my usual class starting at 8pm. Before I left the house I had to make sure that my husband was in to look after the children. I was worrying, “Is he going to get back from London in time on the train?” Once he came home, I left immediately but the traffic was terrible. What should have been a 2 minute drive, took me over 10 minutes. I started to feel really stressed.
But then I realised most of my clients were probably also going to be late too. Even though I had people relying on me and paying me to turn up and teach them, there was nothing I could do about this. It was out of my control.
Stress can have an impact on us physically and emotionally. When we are going through these times of stress it’s important to be aware of the impact that it’s having on us, because the more knowledge we have about these things, the more we're inclined to try and do something about it, and to make positive steps to change things.
A study in 2018 by the Mental Health Foundation reported that 74% of people were overwhelmed, or felt unable to cope with daily life due to stress. 81% of women described themselves as stressed compared to 67% of men. As women we juggle our careers, the house, the children, their school work, the cooking, our health, our parents, and a hundred other responsibilities, so these findings are not surprising.
We are constantly rushing around trying to please people and do the right thing for everyone. There are some situations where your stress may be short lived, for example the story I told you about how I was stuck in traffic. But there are so many other situations where your stress stays at a high level for a more prolonged period of time. The loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, an argument with your spouse or close friend, financial debt, comparing yourself to other people, all of these things can have a longer lasting effect on our physical and emotional well-being.
When we get stressed our body releases a hormone called cortisol. This is the hormone that triggers the “fight or flight” response. The reason we have this is in case of an emergency. We are told by our body to either run away, or stay and fight.
However, if we are in a situation where that stress response is being called on several times a day, day after day after day, that has an adverse effect on our body and can cause a number of different issues.
The effects of stress
It can cause our breath to quicken, so we start to shallow breathe, which then makes us even more stressed. Our heart rate will start to quicken as well. Muscles become tense because you're ready for action (this is part of the fight response in the body that is preparing to save you in an emergency). You might experience headaches or migraines; you might get tension in the neck or shoulders because the muscles are so tight.
Another response from the body when we get stressed is to release acid in the stomach which can lead to heartburn, which then has an effect on our digestive systems. It can cause insomnia, and then you become more stressed due to lack of sleep, and it's a snowball effect.
Stress can also weaken the immune system, which means you are more prone to getting infections and viruses like the cold.
Aside from the physical and emotional effects of stress, it can also lead to cravings for things like sugar, salt, and carbs. In addition to that, when cortisol levels are high, the body actually retains weight.
So what can we do about this? What can we actually change?
Maybe I could leave 10 minutes earlier on Monday evenings, so that I don't end up being late to teach my class! Focus on the changes you can control and try to adapt to certain situations.
Take deep breaths several times throughout the day, this can be done while you're waiting for your child to come out of a class, if you're stuck in a traffic jam, it can be done first thing in the morning. Take deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth to calm your mind. This will help you reduce your cortisol levels.
Obviously, exercise is a really great way to relieve stress. It creates great endorphins for the body (a feel good factor). Sometimes just having a chat with friends can help. Try going for a walk with a friend instead of going to that glass of wine in the evening, which is very tempting. If you find yourself having the time, ask yourself, “why don't I call up my friend and suggest we go for a walk?” The movement, the fresh air, the talking to your friend will really, really help.
Focus on tidying up your sleep habits. What’s the best way you can get eight hours of sleep a night? Inevitably that will mean going to bed earlier. When you’re feeling tired and wanting to go to bed, that's your body’s alarm. When it goes off, don't then go and load the dishwasher or put a load of washing in the dryer, or do all the other things that we do before we go to bed. It can wait until the next day. Your sleep is so much more important. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, life is not perfect, but really try and get that sleep in.
Another fantastic way of helping reduce stress is meditation. This is not something I did until very recently. I remember my mother doing it when I was child, but I never really understood it. If you are not sure how to get started, you could try a meditation app like Headspace or Calm. Inside my BBackstage membership, we have pre-recorded meditations and breathing tutorials to help our members. If you've got a busy mind like I have, you have to train your mind as much as you would train your body if you were trying a new workout.
Be kind and grateful
My last suggestion for you is to be kind and be grateful. Sometimes this is easier said than done. Especially when stress is causing us to be irritable. But being kind to people will always make you feel good, and it will make other people feel good, and this has a snowball effect. Instead of focusing on what you don’t have in life, be thankful for what you do have. Be grateful for the people in your life. And always smile. Just smile at everyone. If you're sitting in the car in a traffic jam and someone is trying to get out, let them out. Don’t let the little things in life agitate you.