The season of giving is quickly approaching. It becomes a motto that everyone chants, and generally, it is a way of life that betters our society. Charitable giving boosts spirits and possibly health and wellness, but what happens when a person over-gives? What does it even mean to give too much?
Over-giving is a term most commonly linked to Empaths; however, it does not solely impact this type of person. Over-giving can be a trait within anyone, and includes any type of giving – physically, mentally, or emotionally. Empaths tend to naturally react to stress physiologically, which can have physical health consequences. Understanding that over-giving is the opposite of giving to yourself (aka ‘filling your own cup’), if you are an empath, you are at an even greater risk of experiencing the negative effects of over-giving.
Multiple studies have linked empathy to over-giving, and these are both linked to ‘burn out.’ Once burn out occurs, the immune system is triggered, depression flares, and a person is at higher risk of illness – both physically and mentally.
Over-givers are generally giving because they are:
- truly thinking they are helping someone or something
- hoping for something in return
- wanting to be appreciated
- wanting to be loved
- needing to feel good about themselves
- wanting to be seen
- thinking nobody else is able
- constantly feeling guilty
When one over-gives, they think they are giving because it is the right thing to do – or worse, that they have to do it, when (whether they know it or not) there is another, deeper routed issue. They go against their own needs and break their own boundaries, causing a downward spiral of personal guilt, shame, and inability to balance life healthily. Of course, this leads to lowered self-esteem.
“Over-giving tends to come not from generosity, but from hidden needs. It is an energetic transaction where we expect a return, even if that is just praise, appreciation, or to stop feeling guilty. And when we give too much, we feel depleted, not energized. We might even feel annoyed at ourselves or with the other person.”
Thanks to recent research, we now understand that military spouses’ empathy for their spouses is a risk factor for their own mental health. However, there has yet to be a call to action for this heightened risk, nor has further research been published on the link between a military spouse over-giving herself through empathy or due to stress. The research also highlights that women have a higher chance of being under empathic concern and personal distress dispositions.
If you are an Empath, you also have great strengths. Reading other’s energy can be exhausting, yes, but with strong boundaries, you can utilize your trait in a healthy and powerful manner. You can become an Empowered Empath. This means that you…
“know you are not responsible for someone else’s destructive behavior; you know how to show compassion from a distance if you need to; and most importantly, you honor yourself enough to cherish and expect reciprocity as a must-have in your relationships. You know how to engage in radical self-care, with the full conviction that the more you learn to care for yourself, the more you’ll have to give to others. You can follow through with your boundaries and are able to cut off toxic interactions before they have a chance to escalate.”
If you are not yet feeling empowered with your boundaries, know that it will take time and practice with implementing them, but boundaries will keep you balanced. Saying no will become easier over time.
If you have found yourself in a relationship where you are over-giving, reevaluate your energy. Chronic fatigue, cold symptoms, frequent stomach pain, depression, anxiety, and weight fluctuation are all signs that your body is not in balance due to a burn out, which all stems from your over-giving. Again, boundaries are needed.
Taking time to fill your own cup and devote your personal energy on your own personal self may seem impossible, but it is needed for you to ever truly find balance – and feel complete.
While the bells are jingling and the gifts are being purchased, many people tend to hold an underlying stress throughout the festive season.
The increased stress load throughout the holidays can affect:
Your overall health
Your mental health
Your Wallet (You know it’s true)
Stress decreases the body’s lymphocytes (the white blood cells that help fight off infection). The lower your lymphocyte level, the more at risk you are for viruses, including the common cold and cold sores. High stress levels can also cause depression and anxiety, leading to higher levels of inflammation. In the long-term, sustained, high levels of inflammation point to an overworked, over-tired immune system that can’t properly protect you. While the holidays are only a brief period of time, the body quickly jumps into this state of panic and can fall deep into the rabbit hole of feeling off.
Your kids will be out on winter break from school soon, family gatherings are on the calendar, the gift list is a mile long, forget trying to get enough food in the house to feed everyone. Somehow, it all falls on you to pull everything off without a hiccup. Perfect decorations, polished china, fluffy bows, and a tree worthy of a magazine cover – despite your sanity flying out of the window.
Take a breath.
You can do this – without the extreme stress.
Dr. Brenda’s Holiday Happiness Guide
Keeping yourself mentally balanced will help you work through stressors as they are presented to you. A mind at peace will be able to more clearly problem solve and enjoy the process.
If you are not one who enjoys the holidays due to the stress, consider removing the largest stressors from your plans. Cancel family plans, give giftcards instead of packages, curl up in PJ’s and order your meal to be delivered – and eat on paper plates. You will stay sane, happy, and healthier than forcing yourself to follow through with your typical holiday expectations.
Anything you can do weeks in advanced? Get it done. You want to already have the majority of your list crossed off before the rush of the season arrives.
Turn on Music or Podcasts
Have sounds in the background that keep your mind on positive things.
See Your Chiropractor
Being adjusted regularly can help reduce your stress levels.
Find 20-30 minutes each day to burn extra calories, even if that means squatting while basting the turkey. Your exercise endorphins will help you stay happy.
Turn Off the Screens
Smart phones, TVs, pads, etc. all trigger the brain to feel inflamed, fatigued, and disrupted. Limit your exposure.
You can have groceries delivered. You can order gifts online. You can schedule your calendar via voice command. Use these features to make your life easier.
Take Your Supplements
Keep your immune system ready to do battle by keeping on your regular supplement schedule, possibly increasing vitamin D and probiotics.
Laugh with your loved ones throughout the day. Do silly things without holding back.
Try to get more sleep, but if that is not possible, just give yourself a timeout to regroup and refocus – or completely take your mind off of everything.
Have a Budget and a Plan
Most holiday stress revolves around finances and extended family. Take the time to put a budget in place and stick to it as best as you can. Hunt for gift deals, but don’t feel pressured to over-purchase.
When all else fails, walk away for 10 minutes. You can disappear into a bathroom, take a walk around the block with your dog, FaceTime your best friend across the country, or meditate. You always need to put the oxygen mask on yourself first.
Dr. Brenda’s tips for decluttering your home and life that will help you become a happier and less stressed mother.
There’s no denying that motherhood bears the weight of a thousand loads (of laundry). It seems that nothing would be accomplished without a mom running the show. On top of the working, laundry, meal-planning, grocery shopping, boo-boo kissing, bed-making, party planning, gift shopping, errand running, lunch packing, back-to-school preparing, calendar scheduling, and chauffeuring of children there is an expectation that she also mentally be sane. Yes, it’s true, as mothers we are assumed to be able balance it all with grace and without (much) complaint.
But is it possible? Probably not 100% possible, but, are there ways to help you find happiness and reduce stress in your day-to-day life as a mom? ABSOLUTELY.
Science shows that decluttering your space reduces stress, improves focus, and increases overall happiness. When relating this theory to motherhood, it can be said that losing the clutter in your home will help you juggle the rest of your obligations easier and with a more peaceful demeanor.
How do you declutter? Isn’t decluttering just adding one more thing to your plate?
5 Tips to Declutter Your House
- Limit your laundry: This doesn’t mean give all your clothes away. It means stick what isn’t worn in a month’s time into a storage tub to be looked at again later. Keeping your own closet limited will make getting dressed easier each day. Now the hard part? Do the same thing to your children’s closets.
- Get rid of toys: Your kids do not need every plastic thing ever made. Studies show that most kids actually have no idea what toys they own because they have so much crap. If you aren’t ready to truly get rid of it, put 75% of it in boxes and store it away for a rainy day.
- Knick Knacks are for your grandma. We are the generation of minimalists. We do not want our old report cards or yearbooks. The more crap on your shelves, the more crap you have to clean.
- Dump the Junk Drawer(s): Literally, dump them out into the trash. They are junk. Do not overthink this process.
- Store things out of sight. Use basement storage, attic space, or invest in a garage storage system, but get the crap out of your sight every day. You’ll want to keep the holiday décor, the hand-me-downs for the baby, and maybe a few other random things, but they need a place out of mind.
5 Tips to Declutter Motherhood
- Establish routine and daily goals. Load and run the dishwasher every night and unload it every morning. Start a load of laundry every day after breakfast and fold it every night after the kids are in bed.
- Leave your phone in another room and ignore social media. It soaks up more hours of your day than you can imagine. Unplug and be present.
- Breathe fresh air and exercise. An oxygenated brain through fresh air and working out makes the entire body feel happier.
- Limit playdates, sports, and activities. When the calendar is overfilled, the mind cannot process one day from the next.
- Do not listen to others’ expectations. Let others fly or fail on their own terms, do not drown because of them. There is no gold medal at the end of all of this. There is no Mother of the Year. There is just you and your own happiness while journeying alongside of your children.
A few more random tips:
Each day, complete your chores before tackling any decluttering. Your mind will not focus on the task at hand until you have completed what needs done.
If you can afford, hire a cleaning service to come in as often as possible. Not scrubbing your toilets can be enough to make you happy for an entire week. If you can’t afford this, stick to a cleaning schedule that holds you accountable for a little ach day.
This is hard. This will not happen overnight. You are worth it. You deserve less stress and more happiness.
As if reading Parts 1, 2, 3 haven’t stressed you out enough, let’s go ahead and dive into how stress affects our children. I’d like to say that the point of researching and writing this series is not to stress anyone out, but instead to make you (and me) realize just how important it is to learn to handle our stress and include more relaxation in our lives.
Stress is positive when the person feels stimulated and able to manage the situation. This positive response prepares the body for action and activates the higher thinking centers of the brain. A positive response to stress can provide the energy to handle emergencies, meet challenges, and excel.
Stress is negative when a person feels threatened and not in control of the situation. These feelings instigate a powerful reaction – affecting both the brain and body in ways that can be destructive to physical and mental health.
Children are more stressed than ever these days. Young children living in poverty or those living wealthy but expected to know how to read by four years old. Stress does not discriminate. A baby, toddler, or child’s body also does not discriminate when it comes to stress. It’s all relative to each child’s environment, and (if you read how stress affects pregnancy) even the stress level of their mother while pregnant with them.
We now know that early life abuse and neglect have adverse effects upon the developing brain and body that can result in poor self-control and emotional regulation, impair cognitive development, and raise the risk of cardiovascular, metabolic and immune system diseases. http://www.dana.org/Publications/ReportOnProgress/Effects_ofStress_on_the_Developing_Brain/
Animal findings demonstrate that isolation from mother, decreased skin stimulation, and withholding of breastmilk (not feeding on demand) have biochemical and permanent brain consequences. Correlating these findings with human behavioral research suggests which events lead to chronic stress and its permanent consequences.
Common Sources of stress in Infants: http://www.parentingscience.com/stress-in-babies.html
- Being away from caregiver: Without regular closeness to a caregiver, an infant not only suffers from elevated stress hormones, but also receives less benefit from oxytocin surges and other positive biochemical influences. The biochemical environment imposed on an infant’s brain during critical development stages affects the anatomy and functioning of the brain permanently. A poor biochemical environment results in less desirable emotional, behavioral, and intellectual abilities for the rest of a child’s life.
- Allowing a child to “cry it out” without affection
- Not feeding the child when hungry
- Not offering comfort when the child is disturbed or distressed
- Limiting body contact during feeding, throughout the day, and during stressful parts of the night
- Low levels of human attention, stimulation, “conversation,” and play
While it is evident that genetic makeup and life experiences influence behavior, it has been demonstrated that experiences during infancy have the strongest and most persistent effect on adult hormone regulation, stress responses, and behavior. Research has demonstrated that high levels of early physical contact and maternal responsiveness can even mitigate genetic predisposition for more extreme stress reactions.
Common Sources of stress in children: http://www.networkofcare.org/library/childrenandstress.pdf
- being away from home
- being bullied
- fear of wetting themselves (ages 5 and older)
- fear of punishment
- worry about getting along with peers
- worry about school work
- fear of being chosen last on any team
- fear of being different from others
- worry about changing bodies (ages 10 to 12)
- divorce of parents
- move to new town or city
- being held back in school
- serious illness
The HPA (hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenocortical) axis, a relationship between specific brain organs and the adrenal glands, is the chief regulator of stress reactions. During stress, stress hormones are released under control of the HPA axis to help the body cope. Cortisol can elevate the blood pressure and the heart rate, increase blood sugar, and interrupt digestive and kidney functions.
The hippocampus, a structure important in learning and memory, is one brain site where development is affected by stress and bonding hormone levels. The level of the stress hormones circulating in an infant affects the number and types of receptors here. It has also been demonstrated that nerve cells in the hippocampus are destroyed as a result of chronic stress and elevated stress hormone levels, producing intellectual deficits as a consequence. Children with the lowest scores on mental and motor ability tests have been shown to be the ones with the highest cortisol levels in their blood.
Continuously elevated stress hormone levels in infancy from a stressful environment are associated with permanent “negative” effects on brain development, causing heightened stress responses that can lead to aggressive behavior and early puberty. Early life stress has also been tied to depression, anxiety, heart disease, cancer, and a lack of educational and employment success.
Behavioral problems and increased cumulative life stress were also linked to smaller hippocampus and amygdala volumes. Why early life stress may lead to smaller brain structures is still unknown.
Studies have shown that infants who receive frequent physical affection have lower overall cortisol levels, while psychological attachment studies reveal higher levels in insecurely attached children. http://education.jhu.edu/PD/newhorizons/strategies/topics/Keeping%20Fit%20for%20Learning/stress.html
Common Signs that your infant or child is experiencing stress: http://pubs.ext.vt.edu/350/350-054/350-054.html and https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002059.htm
Physical symptoms can include:
- Decreased appetite, other changes in eating habits
- Accident proneness
- Hitting, Kicking, Biting
- Extreme Laziness
- Fingernail biting
- Grinding Teeth
- Pounding Heart
- Thumb Sucking
- New or recurrent bedwetting
- Sleep disturbances
- Upset stomach or vague stomach pain
- Other physical symptoms with no physical illness
Emotional or behavioral symptoms may include:
- Inability to relax
- New or recurring fears (fear of the dark, fear of being alone, fear of strangers)
- Clinging, unwilling to let you out of sight
- Questioning (may or may not ask questions)
- Inability to control emotions
- Aggressive behavior
- Stubborn behavior
- Regression to behaviors that are typical of an earlier developmental stage
- Unwillingness to participate in family or school activities
We need to lead by example with handling our own stresses, and give our children the tools to handle theirs. The younger the child, the easier it is to set a solid foundation. You can’t lead a life of stress but then effectively teach stress management, it’s just not possible.
Be aware of how you are disciplining your child(ren). If children fear their parents, they are constantly experiencing stress over their actions.
Ways to Help Our Children: http://www.healthychildren.org/English/healthy-living/emotional-wellness/Pages/Helping-Children-Handle-Stress.aspx and http://handtohold.org/resources/helpful-articles/what-causes-children-stress-understanding-childrens-developmental-stages-and-common-stressors/ and http://pubs.ext.vt.edu/350/350-054/350-054.html
- Be with your infant and hear their cues: Hold her. Rock her. You will not spoil a baby by holding her. Listen and learn your infant’s specific cues of hunger, wetness, being uncomfortable or unhappy and tend to their needs.
- Stop Overscheduling: One of the biggest stressors for kids is being overscheduled. Today, kids are expected to pay attention and perform in school for seven hours, excel at extracurricular activities, come home, finish homework, and go to bed just to do it all over again the next day. Kids need downtime to rejuvenate. Their brains and bodies need to rest. And they might not realize this by themselves. So knowing when your child is overscheduled is important.
- Make time for play: Children of all ages process their emotions through play. They need many opportunities to “play out” their worries and concerns. For younger children this may be done through pretend play while older children may choose to express themselves through avenues such as art and music. No matter what their age, let them know that you want to hear what they have to say and that you will do your best to help them through this crisis. Make sure that play isn’t “pressured” and there is no lesson to learn, competition, or end goal. (Bike riding, imaginative play, hiking, exploring.)
- Make sleep a priority: Sleep is vital for everything from minimizing stress to boosting mood to improving school performance. Keep electronics out of the bedroom.
- Teach Body Awareness: Understanding stress and when the body feels stressed may need to be taught. Encourage children to listen to what their bodies are saying.
- Manage your own stress: Stress is contagious and your children will feel your own stress. If you slow down, they will follow.
- Make mornings calmer: Disorganization, constant hurry, and pressure to perform from the moment they wake up is a stressful trigger.
- Prepare them to make mistakes: Perfection is not and should not be attainable. You are not perfect and neither is your child. Striving for such a thing can set the rollercoaster of lifelong chronic stress. Making mistakes, even BIG ones, is normal. Making bad decisions is also normal. Teach them how to recover and be loved through these moments.
- Encourage your child to face her fears, not run: Avoidance of anxiety causes further anxiety. By facing fears, stress naturally lowers.
- Focus on the Positives: Many times anxious and stressed children can get lost in negative thoughts and self-criticism. They may focus on how the glass is half empty instead of half-full and worry about future events. The more that you are able to focus on your child’s positive attributes and the good aspects of a situation, the more that it will remind your child to focus on the positives.
- Encourage your child to express his anxiety: Avoid telling your child how they feel (“You’re fine”). Instead, use statements that prompt a response (“You seem scared. Are you worried?”). This will ignite a conversation.
- Practice relaxation exercises with your child: Sometimes really basic relaxation exercises are necessary to help your child to reduce their stress. This might mean telling your child to take a few slow, deep breaths (and you taking a few slow breaths with your child so your child can match your pace). You can also meditate or do yoga exercises together.
- Study on early life stress: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3913903/
- aacap.org— American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
- Anxiety Disorders Association of America:adaa.org
- OCDFoundation: ocfoundation.org
- Child Anxiety Network:http://www.childanxiety.net/
We have discussed the effects of stress on the human body as a whole, but what most people forget to consider are the women who are pregnant. Yes stress affects them just as it does the non-pregnant woman, but did you know that it can also have an effect on pregnancy and the unborn baby? It’s true, and it’s enlightening. This research has prompted many feelings for me, as my 4 year old has gut and speech issues that have “no medical reasoning.” His pregnancy was during a time of my life when I was battling stress more often than not. Let’s just say that the hours of research I’ve read through leads me to better understanding my son’s issues.
Research shows that stress experienced by a woman during pregnancy may affect her unborn baby as early as 17 weeks after conception, with potentially harmful effects on brain, gut and overall development.
Pregnancy in itself is a stressful time on a woman’s body. The normal physical and hormonal changes can be quite daunting, but the reality is that excessive stress during pregnancy can have some severe consequences for the health of an unborn baby if it is not managed. It’s already known that extreme stress during pregnancy can lead to increased risk of miscarriage in early pregnancy. In the later stages of pregnancy, extreme stress can lead to premature labor, premature birth and low birth-weight babies. But more than that, the latest findings indicate that prenatal stress can also increase the risk of a baby being born with asthma or allergies, and so many other lifelong challenges.
Cortisol, the stress hormone, naturally increases 2 to 4 fold in pregnant women. Cortisol is passed through the placenta to baby, but the amount of maternal cortisol that crosses the placenta barrier is limited because its passage is regulated by the enzyme 11B-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase. Maternal cortisol does still account for 30-40% of fetal concentrations of cortisol. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11231985
Women under higher than normal stress levels, chronic stress, or stress that is not handled well are unknowingly exposing their babies to increased levels of cortisol. These maternal cortisol levels can affect birth and infant outcomes in multiple ways. For one, cortisol stimulates the synthesis and release of placental corticotrophin-releasing hormone (pCRH). In humans, elevated cortisol early in pregnancy predicts pCRH levels later in pregnancy, and pCRH predicts preterm birth. Maternal cortisol also acts directly on the fetus and its developing nervous system. For example, results of some studies have documented that relatively high levels of prenatal maternal cortisol predict:
- greater behavioral and physiological stress reactivity in fetuses, infants and children
- decreased cognitive ability in infants
- increased affective problems in young children
- altered amygdala volumes in young girls
Stress during the first trimester of pregnancy alters the population of microbes living in a mother’s vagina. Those changes are passed on to newborns during birth and are associated with differences in their gut microbiome as well as their brain development.
According to research presented in 2013 by the Society of Neuroscience, “features of the mother’s vaginal microbiome were altered by stress, and in turn, changes were transmitted to the offspring’s gut.”
During a vaginal birth, a newborn is exposed to its mother’s vaginal microbes, collectively known as the microbiota, which importantly colonizes the newborn’s gut, helping its immune system mature and influencing its metabolism. These effects take place during a critical window of brain development.
Tracy Bale, senior author on the study and a professor of neuroscience in Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine and Perelman School of Medicine states:
‘As the neonate’s gut is initially populated by the maternal vaginal microbiota, changes produced by maternal stress can alter this initial microbial population as well as determine many aspects of the host’s immune system that are also established during this early period.’
These findings not only highlight the important role that the mother’s vaginal microbiome has in populating her baby’s gut at birth, but also the profound effect of maternal stress experience on this microbial population and on early gut and brain development.
A study released in March 2015, utilized the information provided by baby’s first blood draw (heal prick) after birth shows that infants whose mother’s cortisol levels were consistently higher than normal early on in pregnancy, had higher than normal cortisol levels themselves. These infants displayed a much higher sensitivity to stress than other babies with lower cortisol levels. As these babies grew into toddlerhood, they exhibited heightened levels of anxiousness compared to other children, and by the time they were six years old, MRI scans revealed their amygdala (the section of the brain associated with the human response to frightening stimuli) were larger than normal. http://www.newsweek.com/how-calm-your-anxiety-during-pregnancy-315242
Increased stress in pregnancy also elevates the fetal heart rate. Research comparing stress to mood changes shows that a bad mood or bad day does not alter the fetus, but stressful situations and lifestyles do. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4549003/ and http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12002098
The intelligence of more than 100 babies and toddlers whose mothers had suffered unusually high stress in pregnancy was studied, and in January 2015, results were released showing their IQ’s were generally about 10 points below average. Many of these small children also had higher than average levels of anxiety and attention deficit problems. http://www.theguardian.com/science/2007/may/31/childrensservices.medicineandhealth
Numerous studies have found that males appeared most affected and may have implications for the development of disorders such as autism and schizophrenia, both of which disproportionately affect males in our society.
Shown below: Maternal stress also impacts normal fetal tissues and organs’ development and increases the risk of development of cardiovascular, metabolic syndrome, stroke and various neurobehavioral, neuropsychological, neuropsychiatric diseases later in life. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3404248/
The brain development is strongly compromised by maternal stress. Expression patterns of key functional mediators that contribute to the heightened susceptibility of neonatal HIE (Neonatal hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy is a devastating disease that primarily causes neuronal and white matter injury and is among the leading cause of death among infants.) The response of these mediators may be stress-specific.
Prenatal stress changes normal brain developmental trajectory, alters brain cellular behavior, remodels cerebral structure and morphology, disturbs neurotransmission, and reprograms the vulnerability or resiliency to neurological diseases in later life.
Other Possible Effects of Stress: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3404248/
Asthma and Allergies: Babies born to mothers who are experiencing extreme stress levels had more immunoglobulin E (IgE) in their blood at birth than babies who are born to mothers with normal stress levels. IgE is an immune system compound (antibody) that indicates an immune system response. This suggests that these babies would be more likely to have asthma or allergies because IgE is an antibody involved in allergic and asthmatic reactions. Obviously this is not conclusive as there are many other factors that determine whether a child will be asthmatic or allergy prone but certainly elevated IgE is suggestive of an increased risk.
Enhanced vulnerability of neonatal hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy: Studies indicate a close link between prenatal stress and enhanced risk of development of cardio-metabolic syndrome, stroke, neuro-behavioral, neuropsychological and neuropsychiatric pathogenesis in adolescence and/or adulthood. However, little research shows the potential harmful effects of fetal stress on the susceptibility of neonatal HIE. Given the impact of prenatal stress on programming of brain structures and functions as discussed above, it is possible that fetal stress may induce the sensitive phenotype of HIE in the neonatal brain through reprogramming expression patterns of some key functional genes and/or proteins involved in the pathophysiology of HIE. More research needs done in this area.
The most common forms of stress that pregnant women noted:
- Relationship Problems
It is vital that pregnant women are given adequate support and reassurance from their family, friends and employers, to ensure they have a happy and healthy pregnancy.
Stress is going to happen. It is inevitable. But how one handles the stress is what seems to be of importance. Working through it before it becomes ongoing and overwhelming will help lower the chances of any maternal stress-related complications.
We have looked at how stress affects the brain, gut, and immune system, and how it is linked to our overall health. Let’s break it down further by learning how stress affects the rest of the body.
How Stress Affects the Nervous System: http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-body.aspx
Chronic stress causes the nervous system to become unbalanced, and in some cases, even exhausted.
The nervous system has several divisions:
- Central Nervous System: The Brain and Spinal Cord
- Peripheral System, which is divided into:
- Somatic Nervous System
- Autonomic Nervous System, which is divided into:
- Sympathetic Nervous System, when under stress:
- increasing heart rate
- increasing blood pressure
- dilating the pupils
- increasing perspiration
- increasing blood flow
- breathing becomes deeper and faster
- adrenaline is produced which stimulates the heart and other organs to help defend the body.
- Parasympathetic Nervous System: Relaxes the body by slowing the heart rate, constricting the pupils and generally returning to a state of relaxation.
Most bodily functions and the organs which carry them out, hidden away in the chest, abdomen, pelvis or skull, are not consciously controlled. Their nerve supply comes from the autonomic nervous system (ANS) which continues to work and direct the organs that are essential for life without conscious intervention. The autonomic nervous system controls the heart, the blood vessels, and thus temperature-control and such actions as blushing, breathing, the digestive system, the filling of the bladder, and some but not all aspects of the reproductive system. This aspect of the nervous system may not be under our control, but its action can be determined by our state of mind. The smooth running of the autonomic nervous system reflects the amount of stress someone is suffering, so any change that produces symptoms may be a measure of the tension in someone’s life. When people are stressed, the nervous system is disturbed.
The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) has a direct role in physical response to stress. When the body is placed under stress, the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) generates the “Fight or Flight” response, where the body shifts its energy toward fighting off a life threat or fleeing. The SNS signals adrenal glands to release both adrenalin and cortisol hormones, causing the heart to beat faster, respiration rates to increase, blood vessels to dilate, digestive processes to change, and glucose levels to increase. Once the immediate stress is over, the body usually returns to the unstressed state.
Chronic stress can result in a long-term drain on the body and as the SNS continues to trigger physical reactions, it causes a breakdown of the body. Stress may not cause permanent damage to the nervous system, but because of chronic stress, the nervous system can cause damage to the rest of the body.
How Stress Affects the Muscles: http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-body.aspx
When the body is stressed, muscles tense up. Muscle tension is almost a reflex reaction to stress — the body’s way of guarding against injury and pain. Sudden stress triggers the muscles to tense up all at once, and then release their tension when the stress passes.
Chronic stress causes the muscles in the body to be in a more or less constant state of guardedness. Tense muscles can be quite painful if they last a while. Tension in the shoulders, neck, and head can cause migraines that will only compound the stress. When muscles are tense for long periods of time, this may trigger other reactions of the body and even promote stress-related disorders such as tension headaches and migraines.
How Stress Affects the Respiratory System: http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-body.aspx
Stress causes you to breathe harder. Those with asthma or a lung disease may struggle with getting the oxygen needed to breathe. Studies show that acute stress can actually trigger asthma attacks, in which the airway between the nose and the lungs constricts.
Stress can also cause rapid breathing, hyperventilation. This can possibly lead to a panic attack.
How Stress Affects the Reproductive System:
Sex: Stress, acute or chronic, can wreak havoc on sexual function. Reduced sexual desire and inability to achieve orgasms in women and erectile dysfunction in men are examples of how stress affects the body’s ability to have or enjoy sex.
Pre-Menstrual Cycle (PMS): Studies show that women experiencing higher levels of stress also experience more intense PMS symptoms and pains.
Fertility: The first rule with trying to become pregnant is “Stop Trying and Let it Happen.” This is said by many because the stress related to trying to conceive can be tied to the reason a couple cannot conceive. Chronic stress can affect fertility. Stress hormones have an impact on the hypothalamus, which produces the reproductive hormones. Stress may change a woman’s menstrual cycle, bringing it sooner or delaying ovulation and pushing the cycle back. With men, stress can lower the quality and number of sperm produced.
Menopause: Estrogen drops during peri-menopause and menopause. Stress during this time of life combined with the drop in hormone may be linked to the mood changes.
“The brain’s hypothalamus produces GnRH, which stimulates the pituitary gland to produce the peripheral hormones, luteinizing hormone and follicle-stimulating hormone, which in turn stimulate production of testosterone, estradiol and sexual behavior. Stress makes the adrenal gland produce glucocorticoids, which act directly on the hypothalamus to suppress GnRH production. UC Berkeley researchers have now found that glucocorticoids also boost hypothalamic GnIH production, which acts to reduce GnRH production as well as to directly lower pituitary secretion of sex hormones, thereby suppressing the entire reproductive system.” http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/06/090615171618.htm
Lifestyle Changes to Destress: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/stress/index.shtml
Although treating stress cannot cure medical problems, stress management can be a very important part of medical treatment. Specific stress reduction approaches may benefit different medical problems. For example, acupuncture can help reduce harmful heart muscle actions in people with heart failure, but it has no effect on blood pressure. Relaxation methods, on the other hand, may help people with high blood pressure.
Stress reduction may improve well-being and quality of life in many people who are experiencing stress because of severe or chronic medical conditions. Several strategies have been shown to help reduce stress, such as exercise, practicing mindfulness-based stress reduction (meditation and yoga), and engaging in a cognitive behavioral therapy program.
Ideas to help destress:
- Seek help from a qualified mental health care provider if you are overwhelmed, feel you cannot cope, have suicidal thoughts, or are using drugs or alcohol to cope.
- Get proper health care for existing or new health problems.
- Stay in touch with people who can provide emotional and other support. Ask for help from friends, family, and community or religious organizations to reduce stress due to work burdens or family issues, such as caring for a loved one.
- Recognize signs of your body’s response to stress, such as difficulty sleeping, increased alcohol and other substance use, being easily angered, feeling depressed, and having low energy.
- Set priorities and decide what must get done and what can wait, and learn to say no to new tasks if they are putting you into overload.
- Note what you have accomplished at the end of the day, not what you have been unable to do.
- Schedule regular times for healthy and relaxing activities.
- Explore stress coping programs, which may incorporate meditation, yoga, tai chi, or other gentle exercises.
- Practice Relaxation Techniques
- Exercise regularly-just 30 minutes per day
- Tai Chi
- Meditation: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2789000/
- Chiropractic Care
- Make sure to get plenty of sleep, eat a balanced diet, and avoid tobacco use and excess caffeine and alcohol intake, as forgetting these aspects of life will significantly increase your stress levels.
www.aacap.org — American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
www.stress.org — The American Institute of Stress
www.nimh.nih.gov — National Institute of Mental Health
www.nami.org — National Alliance for the Mentally Ill
www.nmha.org — Mental Health America
The American Medical Association states that stress is the basic cause of more than 60% of all human diseases.
Stress has enormous negative mental and physical effects, and yet we often forget how stressful our lives are. Common signs of stress: http://positivemed.com/2012/09/15/how-stress-affects-the-body/
- Frequent headaches
- Frequent jaw clenching, or gritting or grinding teeth
- Stuttering or stammering
- Tremors, trembling of lips, hands
- Muscle spasms, neck pain, or backache
- Ringing in ears
- Frequent blushing or sweating
- Cold or sweaty hands or feet
- Dry mouth and/or difficulty swallowing
- Frequent colds or infections
- Frequent rashes, itching, or goosebumps
- Frequent unexplained allergy symptoms
- Frequent heartburn or acid reflux
- Excessive belching
- Changes in bowel habits
- Difficulty breathing
- Sudden panic attacks
- Chest pain or palpitations
- Frequent urination
- Lowered sex drive
- Frequent anxiety
- Frequent periods of anger
- Depression or frequent mood swings
- Changes in appetite
- Trouble sleeping
- Difficulty concentrating
- Learning problems (things don’t stick)
- Memory loss, short or long-term
- Difficulty making decisions
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Suicidal thoughts
- Feelings of loneliness or worthlessness
- Little interest in appearance, punctuality
- Increased irritability and overreaction
- Frequent minor accidents
- Obsessive or compulsive behavior
- Diminished productivity
- Excessive impulsive shopping or gambling
- Rapid speech
- Excessive defensiveness or suspiciousness
- Trouble communicating
- Social shyness and isolation
- Chronic fatigue
- Frequent use of over-the-counter medications
- Unexplained sudden weight gain or loss
- Increased smoking, alcohol abuse, or illicit drug use
- Dull and dry skin, wrinkles and lines
The human body does not discriminate between a big stress and a little stress. Stress affects the body in predictable ways no matter the type of stress. The catch is this: Short term, acute stress that we experience dozens of times a day is stress that is, typically, easily worked through. These typical stressful situations trigger a cascade of 1,400 biochemical events in the body. If we cannot recover from this stress, these events occurring within us can cause issues within every system of the body. From premature aging to impaired cognitive function, the body can be robbed of energy and mental clarity; health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes are just a few examples of how chronic stress can harm the body.
Types of Stress:
- External Stress: Includes adverse physical stimulus (Think: hot and cold temperatures) or stressful psychological environments (Think: work stress and abusive relationships).
- Internal Stress: This also includes physical stressors like illnesses or ailments and psychological stress such as worrying.
How Stress Affects the Heart (Cardiovascular System): http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2979339/
Even small stressors cause an increase in adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol. This raises the heart rate, dilating blood vessels and increasing blood pressure. Chronic, long term stress can ultimately damage the cardiovascular system: “[A] constant stress experienced over a prolonged period of time, can contribute to long-term problems for heart and blood vessels,” the American Psychological Association explains. “The consistent and ongoing increase in heart rate, and elevated levels of stress hormones and of blood pressure, can take a toll on the body. Ultimately, it can lead to hypertension, heart palpitations, heart attack, or stroke.”
The heart and blood vessels comprise the two elements of the cardiovascular system that work together in providing nourishment and oxygen to the organs of the body. Stress affects these two elements, and causes the blood vessels that direct blood to the large muscles and the heart to dilate, thereby increasing the amount of blood pumped to these parts of the body and elevating blood pressure. This is also known as the fight or flight response. Once the acute stress episode has passed, the body returns to its normal state. Repeated acute stress and persistent chronic stress may also contribute to inflammation in the circulatory system, particularly in the coronary arteries, and this is one pathway that is thought to tie stress to heart attack. It also appears that how a person responds to stress can affect cholesterol levels.
Interestingly, pre-menopausal women have been documented to have a lower risk of stress-related heart disease. This leads us to believe that the higher levels of estrogen women have prior to menopause helps blood vessels respond better during stress; thereby helping their bodies to better handle stress and protecting them from heart disease. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22297478
A condition known as Stress Cardiomyopathy (Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy) is an intense emotional or physical stress that causes a severe heart dysfunction. Chest pain, EKG’s and echocardiograms will all point toward a heart attack, but testing shows no underlying obstructive coronary artery disease. Psychological stress has also been linked to causing Acute Coronary Syndrome (ACS), which is a collection of symptoms that indicate a heart attack. High levels of psychological stress are also associated with harmful changes in the blood. Research shows that this stress has the potential to trigger ACS, and it is noted that the episode is most likely to occur immediately following the stressful incident rather than during it. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26590396
Stress affects the brain, particularly the memory, but the effects vary depending on the type and length of stress experienced.
- Acute Stress: Studies indicate that the immediate effect of acute stress impairs short-term memory, particularly verbal memory, concentration and learning. However, these studies also show that high levels of stress hormones during short term periods are associated with enhanced memory storage, improved memory, and greater concentration on immediate events. The difference lies in how cortisol impacts receptors in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20127868 and http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2906860/
- Chronic Stress: Sufferers often lose concentration at work and home, and become inefficient and accident-prone. Studies connect long-term exposure of stress to excess amounts of cortisol to a shrinking hippocampus – the brain’s memory center. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15240363
How Stress Affects the Gut (Digestive System):
The brain and intestines are closely related. They are controlled by many of the same hormones and parts of the nervous system. Some research suggests that the gut itself has features of a primitive brain. http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2015/06/25/brain-immune-system-connection.aspx
Chronic stress can disrupt the digestive system, causing many uncomfortable conditions:
- Painful Burning: Caused by excessive production of digestive acids
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome: IBS, or spastic colon, is when the large intestine becomes irritated, and it has spastic muscle contractions. The abdomen remains bloated and both constipation and diarrhea occur.
- Peptic Ulcers: Caused by H. pylori bacteria or the use of NSAID medications (aspirin and ibuprofen), peptic ulcers can be triggered by stress.
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease: Stress can be a significant cause in flare ups with IBD.
- Stress can also impact what nutrients your digestive tract absorbs, and how fast food moves through your system.
How Stress Affects the Immune System:
Stress leads to an altered immune system. Chronic stress has an effect on the immune system’s response to infections. Studies show that chronic stress leads to low white blood cell counts, making you more susceptible to illness and infection; or once becoming ill, having a worsened condition due to stress.
Sympathetic fibers descend from the brain into both primary (bone marrow and thymus) and secondary (spleen and lymph nodes) lymphoid tissues. These fibers can release a wide variety of substances that influence immune responses by binding to receptors on white blood cells. When chronic stress is present, the cortisol compromises the immune system, inhibiting histamine secretion and inflammatory response to foreign invaders. People under chronic stress are more susceptible to viral illnesses like influenza and the common cold. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1361287/#R104
- Inflammatory Response: Evidence suggests that chronic stress triggers an over-production of cytokines, which are linked to inflammation. (This is connected to heart disease and asthma).
How Stress Affects Overall Health:
In the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America Survey, major causes of stress include work, money, and the economy. Stress-related unhealthy habits were reported with most people nothing they were overeating due to stress.
- Weight Gain: Stress is often related to weight gain and obesity; the body craves salt, fat and sugar to counteract tension. (Typically, the weight gain is around the abdomen when linked to stress.) It has been found that the release of cortisol boosts abdominal fat, and these hormones along with insulin, cause food cravings.
“There may be a “reward-based stress eating” model. In this theory, stress and tasty, high-calorie foods cause the brain to make chemicals called endogenous opioids. These neurotransmitters help protect against the harmful effects of stress, slowing activity of a brain process called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, thus weakening the stress response. Repeated stimulation of the reward pathways through stress-induced HPA stimulation, eating tasty food, or both, may lead to changes in the brain that cause compulsive overeating.” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17543357
- Eating Disorders: Forms of anorexia and bulimia have been linked to elevated levels of stress hormones and chronic stress.
- Chronic Pain: Chronic stress can be tied to chronic pain. This then impairs the immune system.
- Muscular and Joint Pain: Stress may intensify arthritis, back pain and other forms of chronic conditions.
- Headaches: Tension headaches are closely related to stress. These headaches may not occur until long after the stressor has ended.
- Sleep: Stress often causes insomnia due to physiological arousal during non-rapid eye movement sleep.
- Skin: Stress can worsen skin conditions such as hives, psoriasis, acne, rosacea, and eczema.
- Hair Loss: Localized patches of hair loss, Alopecia areata, is suspected to be linked to stress.
- Teeth and Gums: Periodontal disease can cause tooth loss and is linked to heart disease. Stress increases the risk of periodontal disease.
- stress.org— The American Institute of Stress
- www.nimh.nih.gov — National Institute of Mental Health
- www.nami.org — National Alliance for the Mentally Ill
- www.nmha.org — Mental Health America