Health Fitness

We all experience stress. How we handle it is key to our health, say experts

The Dose24:36What’s the connection between stress and my health and well-being?

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It could be a morning traffic jam. A deadline at work. A conflict with a family member. Taking care of kids and aging parents. 

Stressful situations are all around us, and experts say how we manage stress is key to preventing it from causing long-term health problems — both physical and mental. 

Short-term stress doesn’t have to be negative, but research shows that ongoing stress wears away at the body’s systems and can lead to an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, Type 2 Diabetes, and mental health challenges.

“It’s like walking around with a ten or fifteen-pound weight continually on your back and not being able to shed that weight,” psychologist Dr. Zindel Segal told Dr. Brian Goldman, host of CBC’s The Dose

There are techniques and strategies to decrease that stressful load, however, and lessen the impact of stress on the body and the mind. 

Is stress good or bad? 

Stress means that we are unable to use our personal or social resources to meet the demands being placed on us, said Dr. Eli Puterman, a health psychologist and associate professor in the school of kinesiology at UBC. 

But not all stress is bad stress, said Puterman. 

“It sometimes can motivate you to also move in the direction of, ‘Let’s change our goals,'” he said. 

From an evolutionary perspective, our bodies are engineered to handle stress, said Segal, a distinguished professor of psychology and mood disorders at the University of Toronto Scarborough. 

But after the stress response, we need a period of rest and recovery, which allows the body to recoup the resources that were used up during the stressful situation. 

Chronic stress is when we’re unable to step out of the situation and take advantage of our own natural capacity to restore, said Segal. 

It’s a system that is “stuck in the fifth gear without the ability to downshift,” he said. 

Connecting with your senses

The first step to managing stress is recognizing it, said Segal, and that means tuning into our bodies. 

“Are you noticing that maybe your heart is racing, or that your palms are sweating, or that your temple and forehead are pounding?” he said. 

Grounding techniques can anchor us in the present moment and help pull us away from intrusive thoughts or feelings to take a broader view of the situation, said Segal. 

Deep breathing and meditation can both help you tune into your senses during stressful moments. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

“One of the things that we lose the ability to connect with is the sensory world,” he said, which is why so many techniques for managing stress are about reconnecting with your senses. 

“Sensations are a way of actually helping us step out of thinking, to ground ourselves.” 

A breath of fresh air 

Doing yoga, meditating, exercising and deep breathing can all help ground us in our bodies and change our perspectives on stress, said Segal. 

However, stress can cause barriers to being physically active, said Puterman, so he prefers to think about moving our bodies as opposed to exercising. 

“Getting outside and going for some walks for 10, 15 minutes per day can help us start having those moments where we’re taking care of our bodies,” he said. 

LISTEN | Try this guided exercise in box breathing with Dr. Zindel Segal: 

The Dose1:50A guided exercise in box breathing

One simple exercise Segal recommends is a technique called box breathing. Here’s how to try it: 

  • Sit in a chair and notice the sensations of sitting: the feet pressing down into the floor, the hands folded in the lap or on the thighs. 
  • Breathe in for four beats (visualize the left side of the box). 
  • Hold for four beats (visualize the top of the box).
  • Breathe out for four beats (visualize the right side of the box). 
  • Hold for four beats (visualize the bottom of the box). 
  • Repeat as many times as you like. 

What stress does to the body 

It may be easy to understand how stress can take an emotional and mental toll, but research also shows that stress can have an impact on our physical health — including an increased risk of heart attack or stroke. 

“In the short term, it rapidly increases your blood pressure, which can potentially result in a tear in the plaque that is in your arteries and then subsequently cause a heart attack or a stroke,” said Dr. Hassan Mir, a cardiologist at the Ottawa Heart Institute. 

When we’re feeling stress, it activates our sympathetic nervous system, the part of our nervous system that carries signals related to our fight-or-flight response. 

That can cause an increase in our blood pressure and heart rate, said Mir. 

Another reaction to acute stress is a condition called takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or a weakened heart muscle, he said.

“When you’re really stressed, you can have this release of adrenaline in your body,” Mir said. 

WATCH We can’t avoid stress, but we can learn how to deal with it: 

Stress can create long-term health impacts: ‘It’s all about how you cope,’ says psychologist

Mir has seen people who come into the hospital because their partner had a cardiac arrest, and then they suddenly get rushed to the ER because it looks like they’re having a heart attack. 

“You go and look inside and the coronary arteries look completely fine, but their heart muscle looks like it’s completely weakened,” Mir said. 

If you’re frequently activating your sympathetic nervous system due to stress, that can cause other issues in the body, said Puterman. 

“If you’re starting to shift your baseline of the functioning of your physiology, you’re now entering the state where now you have too much cortisol that’s then activating too much glucose release,” he said. 

Too much glucose released into the body can cause people to enter a pre-diabetes state, said Puterman. 

How much stress is too much?  

A little bit of stress could help us handle more stressful events in the future, a theory called the inoculation hypothesis, said Puterman. 

“Some stress on a daily basis or in life actually inoculates you to future exposures to stressors,” he said. 

But there are some telltale signs that the stress you’re experiencing is causing harmful effects, said Puterman. They include: 

  • Not sleeping well.
  • Not getting as much exercise as usual.
  • Consuming more alcohol or drugs.
  • Withdrawing from others socially.
  • Getting into more arguments with family or friends.

The trick is finding that sweet spot, said Segal, between having enough stress and too much. 

“We don’t want to tip over into a point where the stress that we’re facing is overwhelming,” Segal said. 

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