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If you look stress up in the dictionary, you are likely to find a definition somewhere along the lines of “A physical pressure, pull, or other force exerted on one thing by another”.   When I lecture on the topic I like to use a slightly different concept.  I define stress as circumstances, both real and percieved, that cause either or both physical and emotional strain.  Yes that’s right.  Even things that are not actually occurring can bring significant and long-term stress to our lives and specifically our bodies.

Our bodies were designed to perform miraculously.  When placed into a situation where we are threatened, a great system commonly known as the “fight or flight response” kicks in and releases chemicals which are designed to give us quick bursts of energy and necessary clarity to make quick decisions.  The problem is that we are now more inundated with stressors, often to such an extent that this system doesn’t really turn off.

Stress manifests itself in our physical body, our thinking, even our behaviors.  On the surface, we may notice headaches, muscle tension in our necks and backs, difficulty digesting food, and even trouble sleeping.  But in addition to these simpler issues, there are physiologic changes that may be ocurring.  When under severe and long-term stress, the body secretes a hormone called cortisol.  In short scenarios, this chemical can be helpful for us as it initially makes us more tolerant to pain and may temporarily increase our immunity.  But when it is constantly elevated in our systems, it can cause our healthy bone and muscle to break down.  It can decrease our metabolism and cause weight gain around our midsection.  (Abdominal fat by the way is linked heavily to dangerous conditions like diabetes and heart disease.)  Cushings syndrome refers to a wide variety of symptoms caused by increased cortisol.  These symptoms include central obesity, insomnia, reduced libido, and excessive sweating to name a few.

Even more serious symptoms can also occur when people are placed under high levels of stress.  Some people can experience chest pains, shortness of breath, anxiety attacks, and heart palpitations.  If you notice, these symptoms sound exactly like a heart attack.  They are serious warning signs that your body is under distress and needs some attention.  Do not ignore these symptoms.  If you are experiencing them, seek care from a qualified medical provider.

In addition physical manifestations, stress can show up in our lives as generalized anxiety, irritability, anger and depression.  These conditions of course affect our personal and professional lives directly.  But they also affect people around us with whom we interact.  Our relationships with spouses, co-workers and friends can become strained as a result of the tension that is often playing loudly in our heads.

So what to do now?  Its often easy for us to identify that we feel stressed out, but choosing to address it is more difficult.

For your body the answer is simple, move.  Exercise in a wide variety of forms is extremely beneficial.  It can release other hormones that increase a feeling of well-being.  So go for a walk, maybe take a friend with you.  Swimming, bicycling, dancing, hiking are all wonderful ways to blow off some steam.  Take a group pilates class or yoga to gently work your body and get yourself out around other people.   Additionally, make sure to get enough rest each night and fuel your body properly with natural foods.  Avoid processed and packaged foods in general along with sugar.  If you can’t remember the last time you got a massage, treat yourself to a little self-care.

For your mind and soul, there’s a long list of ideas.  On a personal level, you can listen to music you love, reach out to friends, attend a spiritual center that works for you.   If work is a primary source of strain, often a direct approach works best.  Deal directly with issues, prioritize your tasks so that you don’t become overwhelmed.  Be willing to compromise when necessary and don’t take things personally.

Health care options – Chiropractic care is an important part of how we care for ourselves and stay in touch with our bodies.  By maintaining proper alignment and function in our spine, we allow our nervous system to work optimally.  Acupuncture also works to align the energy of our bodies and can be used to lift mood.  The most important thing you can do is to simply pay attention and take action.  Whether you talk to a friend about what’s happening, go for a hike to lift your spirits, or seek professional health care is up to you.  Ultimately we are in charge of our health.