Developing a healthy mindset through mindfulness practice can be as important a lifestyle change as any other changes you may be inclined to make — such as in your diet or fitness level. Your ability to make and maintain lifestyle choices that promote health and well-being starts with learning to manage your stress.
Stress is defined as a state of mental or emotional strain or tension caused by demanding circumstances. Everyone experiences stress. Of course, not all stress is bad! Sometimes stress can motivate you to solve problems, and reach for new goals. Problems start to show up when too many stressors pile up and you lack the means of coping with them, and the ability to put things in perspective. This can create feelings of helplessness or despair.
Why It’s Important To Manage Your Stress
Your body is programmed to respond to stress. Any stressful situation, like worrying about losing a job, waiting for that scan result, or running into a rattlesnake, can trigger the amygdala — the part of your brain that helps to detect threats and tells your body to release hormones in response to stress. When stress-related hormones — such as cortisol and adrenaline — are released into your bloodstream, your heart may pound, and you may begin to sweat. You get a surge of energy and your mind becomes hyper-focused. Sight, hearing, and other senses become sharper. It can take anywhere from half an hour to several hours to return to your normal resting state.
Fight or Flight or Freeze Response
This reaction is known as the “fight or flight or freeze” response. Humans rely on this automatic response to get out of danger. This reaction evolved from an early survival mechanism that allowed humans to respond quickly when faced with life-threatening situations. If a predator such as a bear appeared, the fight or flight response allowed humans to act quickly. They could either run away, hide, or freeze until the animal was gone, or fight off the predator. This response is normal. It happens automatically, and is useful during life-or-death emergencies. By raising your blood pressure and your heart rate, your body is preparing your muscles to get ready to fight or to run away. As your stress hormone levels go up, your body starts to turn off or slow down the body parts that aren’t immediately needed during an emergency.This process causes more energy to flow to the parts of your body that allow you to fight or take flight — including your lungs, and leg and arm muscles.
How Stress Impacts Your Immune System
Your immune system function is one of the body systems that can slow down when stress-related hormones like cortisol are released. Cortisol can also impair ‘executive functioning’, which is your ability to make complex, reasoned decisions. This all makes sense, if you think about it. If you spent too much time thinking about what to do when you saw a bear, you wouldn’t react in time to avoid being attacked. Your body is very good at turning on your fight or flight response when you’re in danger. However, your body isn’t always able to determine which stressful events are truly dangerous and which are just part of living in today’s fast-paced world. In fact, there’s a good chance that most of the stress you experience is not actually related to life-threatening situations. The stress you feel when you are stuck in traffic may cause your body to have the same type of response — an increase in stress hormones — as if you were being chased by a bear.
Frequently-repeated stress responses, or long periods of stress, can cause your body to be in a state of chronic stress reaction that will affect your health over time.Stress can cause us to sabotage our best intentions to live a healthier life. That’s why, at the Anticancer Lifestyle Program, we consider stress management foundational to creating lifestyle change. When your fight or flight reaction is automatically triggered over and over again — that is, when your stress reaction becomes chronic — your risk goes up for unhealthy coping behaviors that are self-destructive, addictive, numbing, or distracting — everything from excess drinking to aggressive driving to downing a few donuts at work. These are behaviors that, in the short-term, help to dull or distract you from your stress.
The destructive behaviors that can result from chronic stress also trigger an inflammatory response in the body. Prolonged inflammation can have a wide range of physical effects such as fatigue, joint or abdominal pain, mouth sores, as well as mental and emotional consequences, such as depression. In a chronic stress situation, you are also at greater risk of sleeplessness and exhaustion, depression, heart attack, and even cancer.
Depending on your current health situation, you may have persistent feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, loneliness, fear, or anger. While these feelings are natural, if they continue for a long time, your constant stress can result in chronic inflammation that can create an unhealthy physical and emotional state. There is a growing body of animal and in vitro research that links chronic stress with tumor growth and spread. Continuous release of stress hormones, such as norepinephrine and cortisol, can create an inflammatory terrain in your body for cancer cells to thrive.
In summary, chronic inflammation can increase your risk of many different illnesses and diseases. Reducing the physical and emotional impact of stress helps strengthen your immune system.
To learn more, download our eBook, Mindset 101: Learning to Manage Your Stress.