By: Sarah Wang
Imagine encountering a bear as you are walking through the forest. Immediately, stress hormones are released, your heart begins to pound, and you are ready to either flee or fight the bear. This stress response is adaptive, and can be life saving. However, what happens when the bear is at your door every night? This activation of the stress-response system again and again can become maladaptive over time. This is how Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, a pediatrician in San Francisco, explains the effects of chronic stress. Through her work, she has linked toxic stress and adverse childhood experiences with harmful health effects later in life.
We all experience stress in our lives. The causes of stress range from common frustrations, such as a traffic jam to a looming deadline, to traumatic experiences such as divorce or losing your job. Stress response allows our bodies to mobilize to either confront the danger or run away. Short-term stressors can sharpen attention and memory, and can even boost the level of cells involved in fighting off infections. However, stress that drags on can have negative consequences. The effects of repeated stressful experiences can take years to show themselves, but when they do, they often show up as disease. Chronic stress puts you at risk for heart disease, depression, and other problems.
Children are especially prone to the long-term effects of chronic stress and adverse childhood experiences. Children who experience early adversity develop lasting adaptations to chronic stress that are hard to reverse, and that undermine health. High doses of adversity affect development of their brain structure, immune and hormonal systems, and even the way DNA is transcribed.
Health starts in the air we breathe and the water we drink; it starts in families, schools, and communities. The conditions at home and at work have a big impact on our health, long before we see a doctor. Sometimes you can eliminate stresses directly, but some stress is an inevitable part of life.
No matter how stressful life seems, there are steps that you can take to relieve pressure:
- Maintain a positive attitude – Reframing problems can be a powerful way to view stressful situations from a positive perspective. You can regain your sense of control by altering your attitude and expectations.
- Seek out social support – The hormone oxytocin, which reduces the stress response, is enhanced by contact with family and friends.
- Maintain a healthy lifestyle – Get enough rest and sleep, and eat a healthy diet.
- Get moving – People who exercise regularly respond better to stress than people who are inactive.
- Find ways to relax – Make time for a hobby that you enjoy, or take up crafting – certain crafts that require focused attention and repetitive movements may be calming.
- Practice meditation or yoga – These activities have been shown to help people to cope with stress.
- Take control of your environment – If traffic makes you tense, take a longer but less-traveled route.
- Learn to say “no” – Know your limits and stick to them to reduce unnecessary stressors.
- Come up with a list of activities that help you to relax and recharge, and implement these when you are feeling stressed.
- Talk with a counselor or take a stress management class.
Sarah Wang is a Project Coordinator at the Community Clinic Consortium, which is a partner of the Solano Coalition for Better Health.