For centuries, philosophers have debated whether mind and body are distinct or interactive systems. René Descartes, the 17th century philosopher who is known for penning the phrase “I think therefore I am,” believed that the pineal body in the brain was the bridge through which ideas and consciousness connected to the body. Modern medicine and psychiatry address this question by understanding the physical and psychological origins of illness, as well as how patients’ lives are affected by mind-body interactions. In today’s post, I ask our readers: how well are you managing your stress, and how are your bodies reacting to your stress?
By definition, stress sits at the crossroads of the mind and body.
This is probably due to the fact that it manifests in many forms, and can have such far-reaching health implications. Stress is usually associated with an external trigger—pressures associated with family, work, or other daily responsibilities, or some abrupt change in life circumstance, such as loss of a job, divorce, moving, having a baby, or illness. Traumatic stress is a type of stress that is triggered by some life-threatening situation, such as war, being the victim of a crime, a major accident, or natural disaster. Even though we know that it is adaptive, and that it helps us respond positively to immediate threats, we usually think and talk about it in negative ways, once it becomes chronic and maladaptive.
Chronic levels of stress can have effects on almost every system in the body.
- In the gastrointestinal system, chronic stress can be associated with heartburn, acid reflux, indigestion, Crohn’s Disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and stomach ulcers.
- In the endocrine system, chronic stress leads to the over-secretion of adrenaline and cortisol, and can be associated with dysfunction in endocrine organs (liver, pancreas, kidneys), resulting in diseases such as hyper- and hypothyroidism, and Addison’s Disease.
- In the musculoskeletal system, stress causes extended muscle contractions leading to muscle tension, migraines, and headaches.
- In the respiratory system, chronic stress may enhance sensitivity to shortness of breath, and make individuals prone to panic attacks.
- In the cardiovascular system, stress leads to an increased heart rate and greater blood flow to mobilize the muscles for action. Chronic stress may be associated with cardiac inflammation and heart disease.
- Stress can also impair your body’s ability to mount an effective overall immune response, which underpins the reason why you might notice that you tend to get sick right at the most inconvenient times!
- It is then no surprise that a recent national survey conducted by the American Psychological Association showed that 94% of Americans believe that stress can contribute to the development of major illnesses, such as heart disease, depression, obesity, heart attacks, arrhythmias, and even sudden death.
There’s one more major system left…the nervous system.
I think of the brain and nervous system as the mother ship and conductor of all systems, as the brain orchestrates functioning between all bodily organs in order to meet demands effectively. The most common effects of stress on the nervous system are anxiety and depression.
The National Comorbidity Survey Replication, a population-based survey on the prevalence of mental illness conducted between 2001-2002, has shown that 31.2% of Americans have experienced an anxiety disorder, and 21.4% of Americans have experienced a mood disorder, at some point in their lives. So the question is, are you feeling stressed, anxious, or depressed, or all of the above?
Although anxiety and depression may not seem the same as other medical conditions, like heart disease, they can actually have devastating effects on quality of life, your perception of your control over your stress, and your ability to effectively manage stress. Anxiety and depression, like other medical conditions, have many physical manifestations, which overlap with stress.
Let’s start with anxiety. The physical components of anxiety may include a racing heart, shortness of breath, sweating, hot flushes or chills, nausea, and “butterflies” in the stomach. Doesn’t this sound a lot like stress? So what’s the difference between anxiety and stress? I’ve heard, seen, and read many variations on this answer, but I think the best is summarized by:
Stress is a response to an acute threat, whereas anxiety is the reaction to chronic stress.
Both display very similar physical symptoms (as mentioned above), similar biological responses, and emotions (anxiety, frustration, feeling overwhelmed). However, stress tends to be triggered by external forces, whereas anxiety tends to be triggered by one’s fears (fears of looking badly in front of a group of people, fear of something going wrong on a flight, fear of having panic attacks at work). With depression, the somatic symptoms include trouble sleeping, experiencing changes in your appetite, feeling lethargic, and overly fatigued. These symptoms also overlap significantly with some people’s experience of stress.
Regardless of which came first (stress→anxiety, or anxiety→stress)...
Here are some concrete steps you can take to channel your mental energy to improve your body and manage your stress better:
- Build in exercise into your everyday life. Take the stairs instead of the elevator; walk to work if possible, or walk to the grocery store. If you take public transportation instead of drive, this should accomplish the same goal of walking more on a daily basis. Try to aim for 30 minutes of walking per day. When you exercise, leverage your mental efforts toward the experience of walking itself and set your intention for your exercise that day to a different purpose.
- Set achievable goals and priorities. We are likely to feel even more stressed if we set goals that are unrealistic and unable to be achieved. Break down large tasks into smaller steps, and tackle them one by one. Think about tackling the immediate task rather than all of the other things that require your attention. We feel more confident in our ability to handle stress when we can actually cross things off the to-do list, and delegate work to others where appropriate.
- Take stock of how you’re feeling and learn how you respond to stress. Do you tend to skip meals, or do you tend to overeat? Do you tend to pass on sleep, or take your thoughts to bed? Knowing how your body responds to stress will empower you to take action and enhance your sense of control over your stress. It will also help you understand when you could use more help from a healthcare provider.
- Try mindfulness! I’ve written previously about stress and mindfulness. This is a potent intervention for enhancing the mind-body connection. If you are new to this, give it a chance (not just once!) and incorporate it into routine activities, like eating, showering, and walking. Take in all of your senses and try to observe your experience. Cultivating this sense of present moment awareness will help you feel better physically, keep your brain sharp, and manage your task list more effectively.
By Angela Fang, Ph.D. - Mental Health Expert