Effects of Stress on the Body & Mind
Understanding Chronic Stress + Breathing Exercises for Stress
What are the long-term effects of stress on health? And how can we manage stress to reduce its negative impact? More and more research has revealed the wide-ranging effects of stress on the body as well as the mind. But, thankfully, there are numerous strategies we can turn to for relief—including simple breathing exercises for stress like those shared below.
All of us experience stress throughout our lives, and stress is a normal part of living. But, so many of us now live with chronic stress that continues day after day. And, one of the most insidious aspects of this chronic stress is that our bodies learn to adapt to the stressed-out state.
Now, this doesn’t mean that we become naturally ‘good’ at managing stress. Instead, it means that we get used to feeling chronically stressed out, and the effects of stress accumulate in our bodies and minds. You might think of stress as linked to high blood pressure, anxiety, or sleep problems—and you’d be correct. But stress can also play a role in weight gain, and it can make it harder to lose weight.
So, in today’s video, we’re diving into what stress is and the many effects of stress on the body and the mind. Then, we’ll talk about how our bodies adapt to chronic stress, and how this impacts our health. And finally, we’ll discuss the power of the breath, and you can download a PDF with 5 basic breathing exercises for stress relief.
Chronic Stress & General Adaptation Syndrome
Stage 1: Alarm
First, the body responds to stress with a cascade of sensations and physiological reactions, known as the “fight-or-flight” response. This is a natural reaction that readies your body to either battle an opponent or flee from danger—whichever is most likely to protect you from the threatening situation.
So, the body prepares for what’s to come: heart rate and blood pressure increases, digestion slows down, cortisol and adrenaline are released, muscles tense up and blood flow increases, pupils dilate, we start sweating, etc. Of course, this stress response was way more helpful for our ancestors, back when we were at risk of being chased by tigers.
Today, much of our stress comes from mental and emotional anxiety. And, unfortunately, seemingly ‘small’ triggers—like being stuck in traffic or late to work—can cause the same alarm reaction as a tiger! Which means, these day-to-day anxieties produce similar yet chronic effects of stress on our bodies and minds.
Stage 2: Resistance
Once a stressful event is over, our bodies try to recover and repair. Blood pressure, heart rate and hormone levels normalize. The body is able to handle this recovery in small doses, but it’s not designed to have its alarm reaction flipped “on” all the time.
So, if our bodies remain on high alert for extended periods of time (i.e., chronic stress), they begin to change in an effort to cope with the higher levels of stress. The body will continue to secrete stress hormones, and blood pressure will stay elevated. Even if we think we’re managing our stress—or if there’s judgment that we “shouldn’t” be this stressed—our body is still physically trying to adapt to the chronic stress during the resistance stage.
Some signs of resistance include irritability, frustration, and poor concentration. And, as you might guess, this stage of “resistance” can’t continue forever. Ultimately, the effects of stress accumulate in the resistance stage, eventually leading to exhaustion.
Stage 3: Exhaustion
We reach the final stage when stress is chronic and prolonged. We run our physical, mental, and emotional resources dry, and the body can no longer continue to adapt. Signs of exhaustion include fatigue, burnout, depression, anxiety, and decreased stress tolerance.
Physically, this exhaustion stage weakens the immune system and bodily functions deteriorate—putting you at risk for stress-related illnesses such as heart disease, digestive problems, diabetes, and depression.
In addition, research now indicates that, with elevated cortisol levels, our cells can become resistant to insulin over time. So, when our blood sugar increases, it becomes harder for our bodies to metabolize glucose which can contribute to weight gain. Furthermore, increased cortisol can also reduce our sleep quality—and a lack of sleep can also contribute to weight gain or make weight loss more difficult.
Back in caveman times, when we didn’t know when we’d get our next meal, our stressed bodies retained fat as an essential survival mechanism. Now, in modern times, our bodies still have this evolutionary legacy. The human body will hold onto fat for safety when it's stressed, or when it's chronically deprived of fuel. (I.e., via dieting and the dysregulation that it can lead to in the body.)
The effects of stress on health are incredibly wide-ranging and can’t be overstated. And, for this reason, it’s crucial that we learn how to manage stress in our lives. Breathing exercises for stress relief are some of the simplest techniques available to us, anytime and anywhere.
How Does Breathing Reduce Stress?
When it comes to the stress response in our bodies, the activation of the fight-or-flight response happens within the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). This is like the gas pedal of our autonomic nervous system. In contrast, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is like the brake, responsible for the body’s relaxation response. And the main component of the PNS is the vagus nerve—which we can activate by breathing.
The vagus nerve is the physiological connector between our minds and bodies. It’s responsible for regulating our internal organ functions, like digestion, heart rate, and respiratory rate. And, the vagus nerve serves as a modulator for the brain-gut axis—which is now a target in treating both psychiatric and gastrointestinal disorders. Most notably, by breathing and activating the vagus nerve, we can reduce stress and induce relaxation.
So, when we inhale while breathing, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) briefly facilitates an acceleration of heart rate. Then, during an exhalation, the vagus nerve (in the PNS) causes a deceleration of heart rate. This means that, if we take a few moments to breathe—especially focusing on the exhalation—we can almost “hack” our vagus nerve into calming the body down.
Certainly, this is not just a mental and emotional relaxation, but a physiological tranquilizer that relaxes our body and nerves. Activating the vagus nerve with our breath is perhaps the simplest way to reduce the effects of stress on the body in any given moment. You don’t necessarily need any special breathing exercises for stress relief, but I’ve included some below for inspiration.
5 Breathing Exercises for Stress Relief
So, if you’re curious about activating the vagus nerve and your PNS, you can download this PDF with 5 breathing exercises for stress relief. These are very basic, easy-to-remember techniques that you can use to calm the stress response during a moment of distress or anxiety.
Of course, even if you can’t remember one of these exact techniques, just taking a few, slow, intentional breaths can help to induce the relaxation response! But, the more you practice these breathing exercises for stress relief—even when you’re not in a moment of immediate stress—the more natural they’ll become, and you’ll be able to relax your body with greater and greater ease.
Reducing the Effects of Stress on Health
Remember, stress is an inevitable part of the human experience. The goal is not to eliminate every stressor, but rather to learn to manage and cope with stress as it emerges. Understanding the signs and stages of chronic stress can help you gain awareness about what’s happening. And, having some stress management strategies that you can turn to can help to reduce the effects of stress on your health.
Tuning in mindfully—with awareness, in the present moment and without judgment—is key to managing stress. Again, because any judgment, rumination, or anxiety keep us from seeing clearly and creates resistance. (And resistance is stress!)
Guided Meditation for Stress & Anxiety
Today, I hope you’ll try this guided meditation for stress and anxiety. Also, I recommend returning to the lovingkindness meditation from earlier in the course, as research has also shown that this form of meditation can lower chronic stress and reduce the negative effects of stress on our bodies.
For most of us, when it comes to mindfulness, nonjudgment is the hardest component. Self-compassion is the antidote to judgment. Remember to be kind to yourself and let judgment be an “alarm” of sorts, reminding you to zoom out, ground yourself, and begin again.
Today’s Journal Prompt:
Make a list of some of the chronic stressors and acute stressors in your life.
- How do you respond to and manage these different stressors?
- What strategies do you use, and how effective are they for you?
- Are there any stressors that you struggle to manage? In what areas would you like to improve your stress management?
- Reflect on the strategies that are helpful for you and then brainstorm: Can use these approaches (or similar approaches) to improve your management of other stressors in your life?
Books About Stress & the Gut-Brain Axis:
- Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn
- Stress Proof by Mithu Storoni
- Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert M. Sapolsky
- Burnout by Emily Nagoski & Amelia Nagoski
- The Whole Brain by Raphael Kellman
- The Gut-Brain Book by R. D. Lee
Videos & Articles About Stress:
- Best Foods for Anxiety & Depression – Mind Over Munch
- Breathing Exercises for Anxiety – Mind Over Munch
- Stress and the General Adaptation Syndrome by Dr. Hans Selye
- The Gut-Brain Connection – Healthline
- The Emerging Field of Nutritional Mental Health: Inflammation, the Microbiome, Oxidative Stress, and Mitochondrial Function by Bonnie J. Kaplan