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How Stress Makes You Sick and What You Can Do About It

Soon after I was first diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis by a physician at Johns Hopkins, I went to a Naturopathic Doctor for some alternative insight. She spent a good amount of time with me, uncovering my history and understanding my current life situation. (There was a lot to learn in that appointment!) At the conclusion of our first meeting, she asked me if I had ever tried Deep Breathing exercises as a way to support my body in dealing with stress. Um…no, I hadn’t. She gave me a one page handout about the benefits of deep breathing that included instructions and exercises. Just one single page. She asked me to take just a few minutes each day to do just one of the exercises. We are actually talking about literally three minutes a day. When I went back to see her a few weeks later, she asked about my progress. I remember clearly that I was offended that she actually thought that I had time for these silly breathing exercises! I had three kids! That I home schooled! While suffering double vision! And I was just learning how to deal with the diagnoses of a chronic illness. I didn’t have time to breathe deeply!

Or, so I thought. What I didn’t realize then, was that I didn’t have the luxury of not learning how to take that time. To slow down. To learn about stress and its effects on my health. And to breathe. Deeply.

Everyone knows that stress can be bad for you. Some people have even read an article or two describing the difference between acute stress and chronic stress. For those of you who haven’t, here is a crash course to bring you up to speed:

-Acute stress is an immediate and short term issue in which the body has that “fight or flight” response. You may experience a rapid heartbeat, increased blood pressure or quick shallow breathing. The body decides within minutes what to do about it. And then things return to normal. Think – getting cut off in rush hour traffic or even working late to meet that important deadline. That’s acute stress. The thing about this type of stress is that it can has some positive influence on your life in that it can motivate you to get things done, take quick action, or resolve an immediate issue. And once the problem is solved, the stress goes away with it.

-Chronic stress on the other hand, is longer term stress that leaves the person feeling chronically overwhelmed with the perception that they have little to no ability to fix or change their situation. Chronic stress can be something that you are very aware of – dealing with chronic illness, an accident that has changed your life, or the inability to pay your mounting debt. Or it can stem from parts of your life situation that you are so accustomed to that you don’t even realize the chronic stress its exerting on you. Maybe you were born into poverty and still live with it day in and day out. Or your marriage has become comfortably uncomfortable. Even childhood trauma that you think you have overcome, but maybe really never dealt with. As opposed to acute stress, which usually spurs someone to take action to resolve a situation pretty readily, chronic stress wears a person down until they feel as if they have no options to resolve their situation.

You might be thinking – It’s 2016! Everyone is stressed, right? So what’s the big deal?

Well, many people innately understand the connection between chronic stress and the emotional toll it can take. Long term stress often leads to anxiety or depression issues. And from there a cascade of other health issues can ensue.

However, this chronic stress can also directly impact your health in many other ways. Research shows that stress may be directly linked to causing or worsening: Obesity, Heart Disease, Asthma, Diabetes, GI Disease or digestive issues and even Alzheimer’s – just to name a few.

That is a pretty impressive list, but, here is the main deal to understand about stress and how it affects your health – it simply weakens your immune system which in turn, makes you more susceptible to ANY illness or disease.

In fact, there is a whole (fairly) new area of science termed “psychoneuroimmunology” which specifically studies how the brain and psychological processes, the nervous system and the immune system interact with and affect each other. This field of study has shown that chronic stress can set off a cascade of stress hormones which affect many other cells and processes in the body by either suppressing the very things that protect you from inflammation and illness or increasing inflammation and the very things that encourage illness. Here is an oversimplified example – anger actually suppresses your immunes system and laughter actually boosts it. I’m NOT a doctor or a scientist, but in layman’s terms – uncontrolled stress literally makes you sick.

Looking back to the time of my diagnosis, I realize now that there was a whole slew of long term stress brewing for years prior that I did not address or manage. Not unlike the stress that every one of us faces in our lifetimes and daily lives – three children close in age, stay at home mom that also homeschooled, literally no alone time but quite lonely, literally no down time but quite bored at times, moving, remodeling, moving again and again, determined to do every single thing myself, children’s health and learning issues, supporting my mother financially and emotionally, deaths of close family and friends, etc., etc. Every day normal life stressors for a woman of my age. But I let them get the best of me. Or I ignored them all together. And let them linger and brew. Or I just handled it all because someone had to. What I certainly did NOT do was support my body naturally to help manage this type of stress and limit the negative immune suppressing effects of it.

I have learned so much in these past six years. I have researched ways to support my body naturally to improve my health and life in many ways from clean eating, to restorative movement, to quality sleep. And I have learned that there are so many ways that you can help manage stress naturally in your life, too many for me to list them all. The important thing is that you figure out what works for you. In reality, you don’t want to be stressed about trying to fit in ways to manage your stress! For instance, a dedicated yoga and meditation practice are both amazing tools for helping to manage stress. However, they just don’t work for me right now with my life circumstances. They have so much to offer and I aspire to use them both. But not at the expense of creating more stress for myself!

So, these are the top six things (I couldn’t narrow it down to just five!) that I do daily in this stage of my life to help manage chronic stress naturally:

-Positive Mindset/Positive Affirmation Practices – This can be one of the most difficult, yet most rewarding practices for managing stress. A negative frame of mind, negative self-talk and negative reactions to stress simply create more stress. I’m not suggesting that you ignore things that upset you or go through life with Pollyanna glasses. It is important to know what bothers you, to claim your feelings and understand the consequences of your situation. However, there is no benefit to dwelling there. There just isn’t. Once you have given your feelings validity, it’s time to move on. The best way to do this is to find a few positive affirmations that are easy to remember and easy to write and repeat. No, I don’t have sticky notes with quotes on them all over my mirror. But I do have a few tried and true and short affirmations (such as “All is Well” from Louise Hay) that I write or repeat in order to replace negative thinking with positive loving thoughts.

-Deep Breathing Exercises – Yes, those very things that the Naturopath suggested, that I thought I couldn’t find the time to do. But I have learned that this really starts with being mindful of your breath. I’m not an expert in breath work (there are some good ones out there). But, I do know enough to realize that there are times during the day where I find that I am actually holding my breath. And that is definitely not good. Through just a few simple Google searches, I have learned the basic techniques of breathing in deeply through my nose to fill my belly with air, holding and exhaling through the mouth. I use different variations of this method at different times. When I feel particularly stressed, I will hold it for certain counts and release for certain counts to bring back a sense of calm and to positively affect my pulse rate and blood pressure. I also try to do this at stop lights or right before eating. I do the same thing at night when falling asleep – works like a charm! I challenge you to be more mindful of your breathing – to notice it, to learn some simple techniques and to find some times of the day to create some rituals around breathing to help with stress.

-Essential Oils –Well, you know that I love my oils! I use them for basically everything from non-toxic cleaning and natural germ control to general immune system support…to just making my house smell really really good! But, one of the most effective ways that I use pure therapeutic grade essential oils is to support my body in managing stress. Each essential oil has specific properties that are scientifically studied and known for supporting your body in different ways. For instance, woodsy oils such as Cedarwood and Frankincense are very grounding and help create a sense of calm and well-being. Essential oils from flowering plants like Lavender and Roman Chamomile have delightful aromas and are known for soothing body systems and having a calming effect on the mind and body. Citrus essential oils like Lime and Wild Orange have energizing properties that uplift and support positive emotions. So when faced with daily stress, I reach for the oils that will support my body and emotions – calming, grounding, soothing or uplifting. I often will use them in conjunction with the Deep Breathing and Positive Affirmations. These three together are so powerful, you really need to try it!

-Time in Nature – There’s just something about spending at least 20 minutes a day in nature and at least a few minutes a day with bare feet on the ground that really brings the body and mind back to where it needs to be. Grounded. Full. Grateful. A little in awe of our natural world. Research actually suggests that there is some scientific basis to this. It seems as though being in nature can induce a sense of relaxation that our body needs in order to devote resources to important things like digestion and building the immune system. In fact, plants actually give off a chemical that has many positive effects when we breathe it in including increasing our ability to fight off viruses. Just looking at trees outside can lower blood pressure and stress hormones! And of course, we benefit from increasing Vitamin D from sun exposure and happy feelings from breathing in negative ions! There is just too much evidence to ignore spending time in nature. I try to spend some time reading on my screen porch every day, regardless of the weather. I tend the garden in the Spring and Summer, even if it’s just a patio planter. And I take a good long walk almost every day, making sure to take in the scenery and sounds of nature while doing so.

-Movement – So, I’m pretty good at moving! I’m just not as good at formal exercise! It’s a work in progress for me! Research shows that both are really important for your health. For instance, you can’t sit all day at work with no breaks, lounge around all night at home in front of the TV and consider your 45 minute workout at the gym to be the key to amazing health! The great thing about both general movement and planned formal exercise is that they can be done without costing a dime if necessary – and both are keys to managing stress. Simple stretching, a few yoga poses, a long brisk walk as well as a solid half an hour of formal exercise where you push those muscles to the limit – all go a very long way in helping your body to deal with stress. I’ve got the first three almost mastered in my schedule – I really need to add the formal exercise portion. All of these forms of movement increase the “feel good” hormones in your body, lift your mood, and can literally distract you from the stress in your life. No need to “over” exercise though because that actually isn’t proven to be healthful. In fact, too much formal exercise where you spend hours and hours at the gym or on the run pushing yourself beyond your limits actually increases inflammation in your body and decreases your immune system.

-Time with Fur Babies – This seems so silly to even mention. And I could have had a great title to this blog without this last item, “Five Ways to Manage Stress” – “Six” just doesn’t sound as sexy! But, my two little Shih Tzu’s provide too much stress release to not mention them. Of course, they can be a little bit of work too! And clearly, pets aren’t the best idea for everyone. But if you have the time and the means, there is so much real joy in really connecting with pets and allowing them to teach you and give you all they have to offer. In fact, the research shows that pets can reduce loneliness, improve mood, and even lower blood pressure and heart rate. And let’s face it – sometimes they are better listeners and snugglers than other humans. We got our first Shih Tzu one month before I was diagnosed. She is such a loyal girl and has been with me from the beginning of this wellness journey. She doesn’t ask for much in return and she offers more than I could ever have imagined.

So there you have it. What’s the take away from this Do Well blog? Stress is a fact of life. Unmanaged stress can literally make you sick. Some of the best steps that you can take to do well naturally every day, are simple, easy, and low cost practices that help support your body in managing stress.

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