Understanding and Healing Chronic Stress
When we think of chronic stress, we think of pressure at work or school, or maybe stress caused by being in a home with an abusive spouse or parent. During the time of COVID-19, stress can show up in the fear of safety, job loss, and the threat of you or a loved contracting the virus.
But there are many different kinds of chronic stressors, ranging from physical stressors within our bodies (immune disorders) or our environment (black mold) to stressors that come from our minds (unrealistic expectations) to life events (divorce, childhood abuse), and stressors within our community, such as feeling unsafe — each of which affects your body in different ways.
Healing chronic stress may be important for you even if you don’t identify with having gone through a major emotional stressor. Don’t minimize the impact physical stressors may have on you as well!
When you experience stress of any kind, your sympathetic nervous system is turned on alert. This is the system in our bodies that regulates our unconscious physical actions. When the sympathetic nervous system is activated for a while, it releases adrenaline and can cause physical symptoms like increased heart rate and blood pressure, nervous sweating, or dilated pupils.
The sympathetic nervous system is therefore frequently referred to as our body’s “fight or flight” reaction. While this is a healthy reaction to have, as it helps us regulate our decisions, use good judgment, and stay safe, imagine having this system activated on a constant basis. None of those symptoms sound very healthy, do they?
Impact of Chronic Stress
Chronic stress isn’t limited to the aforementioned symptoms. It also impedes our body’s detox system, immune system, metabolism, our ability to sleep and impairs our cognitive functions while heightening our senses of taste, smell, and hearing.
High levels of the brain chemical norepinephrine are released under chronic stress. Norepinephrine is toxic in excess, leading to panic attacks and tension. And all that adrenaline mentioned earlier? It makes the liver pump out all its sugar reserves into our bloodstream, triggering our pancreas to release a bunch of insulin. You see where this is heading: sugar cravings, obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes…
Healing Chronic Stress
Now that we understand why chronic stress is so damaging to our mental and physical well-being, let’s think about how we can begin repairing all this damage. Healing from chronic stress means restoring balance to our nervous system, dialing back that sympathetic nervous system to its normal background state.
With all the different types and causes of stress, the healing process will be different for every individual, though one good tip for everyone with chronic stress is to get enough rest. Getting plenty of rest is so important to soothing your overactive sympathetic nervous system. Don’t worry about feeling lazy or unmotivated in other areas of your life. Running yourself to the ground may be the norm nowadays, but that doesn’t make it healthy, and it won’t make you happy. Take time to relax during the day and get your eight hours of sleep at night.
Healing Chronic Stress Through Nutrition
Our diet also contributes to our stress load, even if you don’t realize it. All the food we eat is transformed into different chemicals by our bodies, some of which trigger our sympathetic nervous system.
When you’re healing from chronic stress, stay in moderation with triggers like food dyes, caffeine, refined sugars, and alcohol. If you feel stuck in a vicious cycle of stress and comfort eating, you may want to participate in our Make Peace with Food program.
Try eating a variety of foods including protein, vegetables, yogurt, fish, eggs, and nuts to get all the nutrients that will help your body produce the right balance of hormones and neurotransmitters. Pair a protein and carb with every meal to keep your blood sugar in balance.
Self Care Strategies to Cope with Chronic Stress
Mild, (not cardio or endurance) exercise will also help slow down your sympathetic nervous system. You can find many gentle yoga instruction videos online that can help restore calm to the body and mind.
If you notice yourself feeling particularly stressed out at any point during your day, try some deep breathing exercises to regain your calm. And if getting those crucial eight hours of sleep at night is a struggle of tossing and turning and being unable to turn off your brain, deep breathing is also a good way to help your body (and mind) drift gently off to sleep.
Unplug from electronics and spend time in nature. Just letting your mind let go can be incredibly healing. Nature is a natural anti-depressant as well! For additional anti-stress benefits, try meditation. To get started, look for guided meditations online or smartphone app. Just 10 minutes a day can lead to powerful changes in your brain helping your body to restore be more responsive vs. reactive.
Your imagination is a very powerful tool that can be used to reduce stress. By consciously visualizing or imagining relaxing images, you can achieve a feeling of relaxation. In addition, by consciously revisualizing a stressful experience or situation, you can reduce the intensity of your stress reaction.
Some suggestions for visualization:
- In your imagination, create images that involve all the senses. You can imagine soothing sights, sounds, touches, tastes, and smells.
- Visualize and image representing stress, and then replace it with an image representing relaxation. For example, you can visualize a harsh red color turning into a soft blue.
- Visualize a special place in which you feel safe and comfortable. Let your imagination fill in as many details as possible.
- Combine visualization with physical relaxation. Relax your muscles as you visualize.
- Combine visualization with affirmations. As you visualize, repeat short, positive statements, such as “I am releasing tension.”
- Listen to soft, relaxing music as you visualize.
You May Need Emotional Support Too
If chronic stress is a common factor in your life, regardless of the source, you may need additional support coping with stressful thoughts and feelings and healing chronic stress. Sometimes our thoughts and feelings can trigger more stress such as, “I should be more productive,” “Why do I feel so tired?” Feelings such as shame, fear, hurt and anger can compound the stress response as well.
Working with a therapist can help you bring these pieces together to support you in creating a healthier relationship with yourself from the inside out. Whether managing symptoms of chronic stress or working on the root causes of your stress, you can begin to feel greater ease and calm in your life.
Contact our therapists in Houston to find out more about how we can help you overcome and heal chronic stress. To get started now give us a call to schedule an appointment at 832-559-2622 or schedule an appointment online. We also offer online therapy for convenience and flexibility
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