The fight-or-flight response is an important survival mechanism and one that has helped humankind since the beginning of time. When the fight-or-flight response kicks in, systems of the body that are not necessary for emergency situations are inhibited—such as the digestive and immune systems. In turn, those that are necessary for emergencies—such as the circulatory and respiratory systems—are stimulated.
When a threat is perceived, the hypothalamus activates both the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal-cortical system. Adrenaline and cortisol are released, levels of endorphins increase, and levels of serotonin decrease. When all of these hormones are released, sudden changes occur in the body: heart rate and blood pressure increases, pupils dilate, muscles tense, and the brain shifts focus to the tasks necessary for survival. Because of the sudden shift in focus, people tend to act less logically.
In the short-term, this response is a critical element of human survival, but in the long term, it can prove detrimental to overall health and well-being. This is primarily because stress has a negative impact on the body’s cells. Each cell goes into a fight-or-flight response, and if this state of stress becomes chronic, the cells can cease to function properly. This can lead to many different types of chronic disease.
How Chronic Stress Affects Health
Chronic stress can negatively impact all systems of the body. Some symptoms that may be caused by chronic stress include:
- Muscle tension
- Disrupted sleep
- Digestive issues such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Hair loss
- Extreme weight gain or loss
- Decreased immune system function
- High blood pressure 1
Causes of Chronic Stress
Just about every aspect of modern life has the potential to cause stress. External factors, internal factors, lifestyle, dietary choices, and environmental factors can all play a large role in levels of stress.
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External factors include problems with relationships—whether friend, family, or romantic—issues at work, or financial difficulties. Perhaps you’re having trouble balancing your work and home life or the stress of commuting during rush hour is finally getting to you.
Internal factors are self-imposed and have a lot to do with how society views productivity. Instead of giving yourself time to relax, you may feel as though you always need to be achieving something. In order to get ahead in the workforce, you are often expected to be competitive and ambitious. This can be especially hard for those with type A personalities who tend to be perfectionists and over-achievers.
Lifestyle and diet choices can also lead to chronic stress. What you eat, how often you rest, how much time you spend outdoors, and how often you exercise can all have an impact on stress levels. Living off of coffee and takeout food can take a toll on your body, especially if you aren’t prioritizing your mental and physical health in other ways.
Environmental stressors also play a role. Living in a city means you are constantly exposed to pollution, and it is difficult to get away from cell phones, computers, and other forms of technology. Giving yourself time in nature can remove you from these causes of environmental stress and give your mind a chance to reset.
Natural Stress Relief
Although stress is a part of everyday life, it doesn’t need to take over. By taking a little bit of time out of each day to focus on your mental health, you can reduce your chances of becoming ill from chronic stress.
Spend Time in Nature
It has been proven time and time again that spending time in nature can reduce feelings of stress and anxiety and improve overall wellbeing. There is a lot of research to back this claim, and scientists have found that the terpenes found in nature play a key role in the therapeutic properties of a walk through the forest.
Countless studies have also focused on the concept of forest bathing and how it benefits physical and mental health. In 2018, a meta-analysis was published in Environmental Research that included 143 of these studies. The studies found that exposure to nature resulted in a significant reduction in heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels. There was also a significant decrease in the risk of diabetes and heart disease. The majority of participants also reported that they felt an increase in their overall wellness and that their levels of stress and anxiety had declined. 2
The best part is that you don’t need to move to the mountains to benefit from a daily dose of nature. Many studies examine the effects of nature after a mere 15 or 30 minute exposure, and the positive effects can still be seen. If you live in a city, try not to get all of your exercise inside of a gym. Look for a local park where you can go on a weekly jog or find a body of water and move your yoga practice there instead of the studio.
Although exercise has a positive effect on stress, you don’t have to be working up a sweat to enjoy the therapeutic effects of nature either. Forest bathing is simply immersing yourself in nature in a mindful way. Take some time to really appreciate the nature around you—breathe in the fresh air, admire the beautiful flowers, and listen to the birds sing. Try to let all of your worries drift away as you simply watch and listen.
Bring Nature Indoors
When you’re simply too swamped to get outdoors, there are plenty of ways to benefit from nature in the comfort of your own home. Try to improve your green thumb by growing herbs or tomatoes on your porch or bring a couple of succulents or other house plants indoors.
Diffusing essential oils throughout your home allows you to breathe in all of the beneficial terpenes from plants without even leaving your couch. Try choosing blends of oils depending on what you need—lavender and chamomile are calming, frankincense and sandalwood are good for meditation, and sweet orange and peppermint are uplifting. Mountain, Ocean, and Forest are all inspired by the natural world, and can bring you a moment of peace in the midst of a busy day.
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