by Dr. John Gray, Ph.D.
Stress can bring on sickness and a host of conditions such as anxiety, headaches, high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes, skin conditions, asthma, arthritis, depression, and insomnia. Stress is also the number one reason for failed marriages.
The responses to stress are very different for men and women. Men tend to shift gears, disengage, and forget their problems. Women are usually compelled to connect, ask questions, and share problems. These differences can be extremely destructive in a relationship if they are not recognized and respected.
How Stress Harms Your Body
When we think about stress, we think about traffic jams, unpaid bills, messy homes, tension in the workplace, too much to do, deadlines, no one to turn to, crying children—the list is endless. These are certainly some of our daily causes of stress, but not what researchers refer to when they measure our bodies’ stress levels.
The production of adrenaline and cortisol, hormones secreted by the adrenal gland, is how our bodies respond to outside stress. Over time, elevated levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, can chip away at our physical, mental and emotional health.
On a very physical level, these stress hormones can gradually deplete our supply of feel good hormones. If we are in danger—let’s say, chased by a bear—the adrenal gland releases adrenaline (also known as epinephrine), cortisol, and other hormones to give us a temporary burst of energy and mental clarity. For our ancient ancestors, these hormones were a survival mechanism in dangerous situations. Either we escaped, or we were eaten.
When adrenaline and cortisol are released, extra energy is directed to the brain and muscles, sharpening our senses and increasing our strength and stamina. This sudden focus redirects energy temporarily from other systems, slowing digestion and other secondary functions. When a bear is chasing you, your body automatically protects itself from being digested rather than digesting lunch.
How Stress Harms Your Brain
Adrenaline and cortisol serve an important survival function in life-and-death situations, but the body is not designed to accommodate the continual release of stress hormones. When we are under unrelenting but not life-threatening stress, these hormones are still released, and over time they disrupt our digestive and immune systems, resulting in lower energy and susceptibility to illness.
With long-term stress, cortisol and adrenaline create unhealthy fluctuations in our blood sugar levels that can produce moodiness, mild depression, a sense of urgency, irritability, anxiety, and general distress. Even worse, researchers have now determined that stress can change your brain.
French researchers discovered that stress triggers an enzyme in your body that attacks a molecule in the hippocampus part of the brain, reducing the neural connections that can be made in that area of the brain. “These effects lead subjects to lose their sociability, avoid interactions with their peers and have impaired memory or understanding,” a university press release explained.
Stress can also harm your brain’s memory and learning capacity by reducing the volume of gray matter in brain regions associated with emotions, self-control and physiological functions.Chronic stress, and chronic depression, can contribute to lost volume in the brain’s medial prefrontal cortex, which is associated with emotional and cognitive impairment.
A 2008 study on mice found that stress can lead to problems with memory and learning. While cortisol hampers the activity of the hippocampus, it increases the size and activity of the amygdala, the brain’s main center for emotional responses and motivation. The amygdala is responsible for fear processing, threat perception and the fight-or-flight response. Increased activity means we’re in a state of reacting to perceived threat, which can have the effect of restricting our ability to take in new information.
How Stress Affects Your Relationship
All these changes that stress causes to your brain can have a direct affect your relationships. These are some common examples of how stress affects us and thus our relationships:
1. Mild depression inhibits our passion.
2. A sense of urgency takes away our patience and flexibility.
3. A sense of distress, anxiety, or panic greatly diminishes our capacity to be happy.
4. Irritability overshadows our feelings of affection, appreciation, and tenderness.
5. Decreased energy limits how much we can freely give of ourselves.
6. With unstable blood sugar levels, our moods either become flat or fluctuate too much.
7. Men lose interest in the relationship, while women feel overwhelmed, with too much to do and not enough time or support.
When we understand the common symptoms of chronic stress, we can recognize why so many relationships fail today. Learning how stress affects our day-to-day behavior should motivate us to lower our own stress levels. By updating our relationship skills, we can convert our relationships to lower stress levels rather than being another source of stress.
What To Do
Just as you have a stress response, you can also have a “relax response” to help slow down your breathing, lower your blood pressure and calm yourself. Below are some ways to help you find stress relief.
Walking helps clear your head and boost your enderphins, which reduce stress hormones. A 15-minute walk in nature, on a beach, or even in a park, can actually help put your body in a state of meditation. This is known as “involuntary attention” during whiich something holds your attention, but simultaneously allows for reflection.
Yogis knows that the breath, also called pranayama or “life force”, plays an important role in revitalizing the body. Taking a few deep breaths give you an extra boost of oxygen which can help reduce tension and relieve stress. Breathing exercises have been proven in clinical research to lower blood pressure and may even be able to change the expression of some genes.
There is tons of interesting evidence showing how your gut is a major mediator of stress response. Try picking a snack that will fill you up, but is still healthy for you. Half an avocado, some almonds or even a hard boiled egg. Even better is a banana. Bananas are rich in potassium. Potassium helps to regulate blood pressure, which can rise during times of stress.
Even the National Institute for Health has encouraged “guided imagery” for relaxation. Simply make yourself comfortable, sitting or laying down, and then try to picture yourself in a peaceful scene, like a beach or a grassy hill with a view.
Besides diet, relaxation and exercise, supplements and vitamins can help reduce your stress.