Stress and the Body: Chill Out

By: Charlotte Miller

Everyone experiences stress differently. Everyone copes with stress differently. Personally, being a woman in college manifests itself in a multitude of stressors such as midterms and finals, job hunting, and finding time to workout. 

In a fast-paced world, it can be difficult to take a step back and chill out. If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught me anything, it is the importance of prioritizing my physical and mental health to cope with stress and anxiety. Research has shown that chronic stress is not healthy for the body or the mind as it takes a toll on the nervous system and digestive system. (Yaribeygi, et. al, 2017). Learning to rest and recover after a stressful day is a major component of resilience. 

Stress 101

Stressful situations induce a flight-or-fight response from the body. Common signals are sweaty palms, an increase in heart rate, and dilated pupils. This is the sympathetic nervous system at play. It is responsible for the fight or flight response, sending blood to muscles and activating the release of hormones that make the body more alert (Yaribeygi, et. al, 2017). Neurotransmitters and hormones are two parts of the stress response. In response to stress, the brain signals the release of two neurotransmitters throughout the body, acetylcholine and norepinephrine. This results in several different functions. In the case of the Flight response, these neurotransmitters increase the flow of blood being delivered to muscles (Thoma, 2013). In addition to these neurotransmitters, the brain sends signals to the adrenal glands for hormones to be released. Norepinephrine (in the hormonal form) and epinephrine are first dispersed throughout the body, followed by cortisol, to reduce the functions of unnecessary systems and increase the function of necessary systems for flight or fight. One of the first functions to be shut down is digestion (Yaribeygi, et. al, 2017). This is the main reason stress causes stomach aches and digestive issues. This full-body stress response is a survival tactic from the body. Since the body does not know the difference between a life-threatening stressful situation and a ‘final exam’ stressful situation, a full-body stress response can be taxing.

 Evidently, chronic stress has serious negative effects on the body. Constantly being stressed and the continuous activation of the sympathetic nervous system can lead to high blood pressure, immune system suppression, and digestive system dysfunction (Yaribeygi, et. al, 2017). 

Coping with Stress

Stress can be both positive and negative. If you are nervous or stressed before an exam or a performance, it means you care. That rush of adrenaline and other stress hormones that results in a flight-or-fight response can give you the energy and excitement you need to perform well. One way to control the activation of the sympathetic nervous system is to stop what you are doing and take a breath to control your internal environment. The hol3health takeaway is this: Take control of your stress before it controls you. When you find yourself in a stressful situation, it can seem as if you are losing power over your body’s reactions or even the situation itself. Trust me, we have all been there. After doing some research, there are three things to actively practice to prevent such feelings: awareness, acceptance, and action. 

The Trifecta

Awareness: Acknowledge your physical response, your immediate emotions and feelings, and what situation or thing is making you stressed out. Make note of what you can control and what you can’t.

Acceptance: Once you become aware of your mind and body you should accept the moment as it is. Accept what your initial responses are and make yourself present in the situation. 

Action: You are now self-aware and have accepted the current state you are in. Now you must take action to mitigate the change in your body and your mind. This can be done through mindfulness and processing how you feel rather than reacting to how you feel. Removing yourself from the situation and going on a walk, or listening to music, can help calm your body and mind as well. 

Fun Fact: 

Listening to relaxing music has been shown to help the body recover from a stress response and lower cortisol levels (Thoma, 2013)!

Reference List:

Ray A, Gulati K, Rai N. Stress, Anxiety, and Immunomodulation: A Pharmacological Analysis. Vitam Horm. 2017;103:1-25. doi: 10.1016/bs.vh.2016.09.007. 

Thoma, L. (2013). The Effect of Music on the Human Stress Response. PloS One, 8(8), e70156–e70156. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0070156 

Yaribeygi H, Panahi Y, Sahraei H, Johnston TP, Sahebkar A. (2017). The impact of stress on body function: A review. EXCLI J. 16:1057-1072. doi: 10.17179/excli2017-480. 

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