Stress permeates your life today in so many different ways. It impacts you with obvious glitches like being stuck in freeway traffic or having your boss yell at you when you under-delivered on a project. When you hear stress, you likely imagine its emotional impact, but its effects can also be physical like over-exercising or under-sleeping.
What Causes Stress?
Researchers define stress as “any situation which tends to disturb the equilibrium between a living organism and its environment.”
Among the many stressors that you might face today include work pressure, examinations, psychosocial stress, and physical stresses due to trauma, surgery, and various medical disorders.
Everyone deals with stress differently, and what might stress one person out would hardly bother another person. You might perceive rush-hour traffic as an hour of misery to grind your way through, or you might use it as an opportunity to catch up on phone calls. A work presentation can feel like a herculean challenge or an opportunity to show your skills.
While stress might feel like stress – meaning, miserable and uncomfortable – researchers divide it into three broad categories. “Stress management can be complicated and confusing because there are different types stress — acute stress, episodic acute stress, and chronic stress — each with its own characteristics, symptoms, duration and treatment approaches,” says the American Psychological Association (APA).
Acute stress, the most common form, comes from demands and pressures of the recent past and anticipated demands and pressures of the near future. Emotional distress, muscular problems including back pain, and gut problems like a stomachache are among the symptoms of acute stress.
We’ve all known someone who has episodic acute stress. He’s always late, constantly juggling multiple tasks, and generally seems to enjoy the chaotic drama that permeates his life. If you call him out on this drama, he might lose his temper or even become hostile. He might seem to thrive on stress.
The APA says that while acute stress can feel thrilling, chronic stress most decidedly does not. That festering, sometimes low-grade stress can leave you feeling hopeless and despondent. Among the culprits for chronic stress include poverty, having a dysfunctional family, being in an unhappy marriage of job, or living in a war-torn country.
“The worst aspect of chronic stress is that people get used to it,” says the APA. “They forget it’s there. People are immediately aware of acute stress because it is new; they ignore chronic stress because it is old, familiar, and sometimes, almost comfortable.”
Types of Stress
Acute stress can be quick and uncomfortable, but that short-term stress is… well, temporary. It goes away, and it might even make you stronger or more resilient. Chronic stress, on the other hand, sticks around long after its welcome. It can sabotage your health and happiness.
Within those short-term versus long-term categories, stress comes in different “flavors,” including traumatic, physical, and the most common, emotional. Because it occurs so common, let’s focus on emotional stress here.
Its effects are similar to depression. With persistent emotional stress, you might lose or gain weight. You might notice sleep changes. You maybe feel isolated and struggle with mood swings. Needless to say, these feelings and changes can sabotage your life and your happiness.
Other signs of emotional stress include anxiety, having memory lapses, feeling fatigued and worn down, avoiding friends and family, not being in the mood for sex, and mood swings that practically everyone around you notices.
Everyone feels those things occasionally, but when you almost constantly feel tired, anxious, or want to isolate yourself from others, those can be signs that emotional stress has overpowered your life. And that’s nothing to take lightly.
Stress and Your Spine
People understand the link between emotional stress and things like ulcers, heart disease, and headaches. But emotional stress also impacts those tight muscles in your neck and shoulders. That stress, coupled with stress added to other areas including your limbic system, meninges, and spinal cord, can have an impact on posture and contribute to poor spine health.
Stress impacts your spine in numerous ways. One study discussed in the May 2001 issue of Popular Science looked at a group of college students who repeatedly lifted 25-pound boxes. A special measuring device calculated the pressure on the students’ spines.
During the first half of the experiment, the researchers offered words of encouragement to participants while they performed their tasks. But during the second half of the experiment, they were criticized. That criticism didn’t bother some students, but it sure did others. In particular, introverted students who didn’t handle criticism well disliked repetitive work had an almost 27 percent increase in pressure on their spine.
That result is important for different reasons. One, because stress impacts everyone differently. You might be able to “roll with it,” but not everyone can.
Two, a 27 percent increase of pressure on the spine is more than enough to subluxate someone. “What this shows is that there is a body-mind interaction that manifests itself as pressure on the spine,” said William Marras, professor of industrial engineering at Ohio State University.
Of course, if you already suffering from spinal alignment issues, your spine is weak and stress will have a far greater negative impact on your health.
Stress’s impact on your spine could come in other forms, including athletic competitions or even non-physical stressful situations like talking on the phone with your head tilted at an angle, sitting at a computer, or any kind of repetitive work while experiencing a job’s pressures.
Except for major physical traumas, most spinal issues likely occur from a combination of physical, chemical, and emotional stressors. Clearly, if you are subluxation free – already living with your spine in line – you can better withstand those forces.
But few of us do. Almost-constant stressors impact even the strongest spines, which is why keeping your spine its ideal state becomes so important. Otherwise, daily stress will undoubtedly take its toll.
Side Effects of Stress
Emotional stress can adversely impact your spine, which can also trigger or exacerbate numerous other health problems. Emotional stress can manifest in different ways, including anxiety, depression, and hostility.
Research shows women and men handle stress differently. Women have a greater risk for depression and anxiety, whereas men have a greater risk for alcohol-use disorders. For both genders, that’s bad news.
Emotional stress can also adversely impact many hormones including glucocorticoids, catecholamines, growth hormone, insulin, and prolactin. Some of that impact gears you up for the fight-or-flight response, but research shows these hormonal imbalances can negatively impact problems including obesity as well as your adrenal and thyroid glands.
Impacts of Stress
Along with those hormonal imbalances, stress impacts numerous areas of your life. Some common issues and side effects of stress include
1. Gut problems.
Epidemiological data indicates along with depression, emotional stress might influence the development of gastrointestinal disorders and cancers. One study with 23,698 people found stress and depression related to digestive diseases including functional dyspepsia (FD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and reflux esophagitis. Depression was also linked to peptic ulcer disease and adenoma/carcinoma of the colon and stomach.
Emotional stress can crash your immune system. In fact, one meta-analysis of over 300 empirical studies spanning three decades found psychological stress could negatively impact your immune system. You’ve probably experienced this after having a crazy week at work and then you suddenly fall ill on the weekend. It’s not in your head: Stress can seriously impact your immune system.
3. Skin problems.
The most common trigger for inflammatory skin disorders, including psoriasis, is emotional stress. Think about someone who has an emotional reaction to something and subsequently breaks out in hives or a rash.
4. Oxidative stress.
Think of oxidative stress as your body rusting. “Oxidative damage is what happens when nasty rogue molecules called ‘free radicals’ attack your cells and DNA, damaging the body and aging you from within,” says Jonny Bowden, Ph.D. Research shows emotional stress can trigger or exacerbate oxidative stress, leading to problems including anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder.
Emotional stress can encourage comfort-food eating, overeating, eating disorders, and fat-regulating hormonal imbalances. Once again, think back to a hectic week at work or a fight with your significant other. If you’re hitting the freezer for butter pecan at 11 p.m. more often than normal, emotional stress could play a role in those eating habits.
Along with depression, researchers link emotional stress with increased risk for Type 2 diabetes. Obviously, chronic diseases like diabetes are multifactorial. A sugar-filled diet coupled with inactivity can certainly contribute to Type 2 diabetes, but conventional practitioners often overlook things like emotional stress for these conditions.
7. Lack of physical activity.
Research shows emotional stress can impair efforts to be physically active. Interestingly, exercise is one of the best mood boosters on the planet, yet if you’re feeling any type of emotional distress, you might be more likely to hit the couch than the weight room.
Sleep disrupts how you sleep and creates sleep disorders including insomnia. If you’ve had something weighing on your mind and tossed for hours, you know how emotional stress can impact sleep quality and quantity.
The list goes on and on. Emotional stress impacts nearly every area of life, and left unmanaged, it can sabotage your health, happiness, and overall quality of life.
How to Reduce Stress – 9 Strategies for Stress Relief
Everyone experiences stress differently. If you believe emotional stress has impacted your life, never dismiss that feeling as “in your head” or something to trooper through things. When you bottle up stress, it can manifest in unhealthy ways including drinking too much, anger and damaging your overall quality of life.
You can’t eliminate stress, but you can learn to manage it better. Stress management strategies can help you better cope with the near-constant emotional stress that permeates 21st-century life. Among those include:
1. Eliminate or minimize foods that can impact emotional stress.
Food sensitivities including sugar, gluten, dairy, and pretty much any processed food can create a roller coaster that leaves you feeling good for a bit but crashes quickly. Diet is an often-overlooked culprit for emotional stress. Eliminating food sensitivities and adding in plenty of whole, unprocessed, nutrient-rich foods can dramatically impact your mood.
2. Find a sanctuary that helps you unwind.
Everyone needs downtime to relax, feel calmer, and dial down emotional stress and other unpleasant emotions. Your sanctuary might be walking in nature, going to church, or taking your dog on a lake walk. Don’t underestimate the power of little moments to reduce emotional stress.
3. Try emotionally calming nutrients.
In an ideal world, your calming neurotransmitters could be in balance and you wouldn’t have nutrient deficiencies. Unfortunately, that often isn’t the case. Certain nutrients can help restore equilibrium and reduce the impact of emotional stress. Research show nutrients like L-theanine, GABA, and Rhodiola Rosea can help emotional stress, lower anxiety, and help you feel more focused. These benefits don’t happen overnight, and they demand the correct ratios with quality supplements. Try Adrenal Calm, a natural GABA supplement. Speak with a chiropractor or other healthcare specialist who can help you design a protocol that addresses your specific condition.
4. Get great sleep.
Talk about a vicious cycle: You sleep terribly, gain weight, and struggle with emotional stress. Research shows they’re interrelated. The aftermath is equally awful: Sleep-deprived, you’re more vulnerable to feeling emotional stress and grabbing a donut your receptionist brought in to compensate. Don’t fall into that trap. Aim for eight hours of quality, uninterrupted sleep every night. You might need to try a supplement like our sleep and mood or inositol powder to calm your mind and drift into sound slumber. Starting the habit of getting a good night’s sleep is one of the simplest things you can do to help with stress relief.
5. Get control over your situation.
One study found patients with heart failure who had high perceived control had significantly greater 6-minute walk distances and less emotional distress than patients with low perceived control. In other words, people who felt more in control over their situation had less emotional stress than those who didn’t feel in control. Getting control means doing whatever you can to improve a situation and letting go of what you can’t control.
6. Write it down.
Brooding on a situation can only amplify emotional stress. Journaling can provide a powerful release for those negative emotions. One study asked young adults to write for 20 minutes on four occasions about deepest thoughts and feelings regarding their most stressful/traumatic event in the past five years (expressive writing) or about a control topic (control). After three months, the expressive-writing group had a significant reduction in anxiety, whereas participants low in expressiveness showed a significant increase in anxiety.
7. Utilize apps.
Keeping smartphone applications nearby can help you take control when panic attacks or other emotional stressors usurp your day. Even a few minutes of deep breathing, meditation, or mindfulness can help you harness those feelings. Many of these apps are free, so test-drive a few out and see whether they work for you.
8. Implement strategies that help you manage stress.
Meditation, deep breathing, yoga, and changing your mindset are all tools you can utilize to manage emotional stress. None of these are quick fixes, but they can help you stay more present, put things into perspective, and let go of emotions that sabotage your health.
9. Visit a chiropractor.
Your spine houses the nervous system. Chronic stress of any kind – and let’s face it, we all struggle with this to some degree – can impact muscle tension and contraction, putting uneven pressure on your skeleton and leading to subluxations. A chiropractor can help relieve stress’ pressure on your spine and also implement a diet, nutrient, and lifestyle protocol to help you better cope with emotional stress.
If you struggle with emotional stress on any level and feel suicidal or other detrimental thoughts, please seek someone who can help you. Talking with a therapist can help you work through the emotional baggage that holds your emotions hostage and frees you from emotional stress.