Stress is a problem that effects many people. There are lots of different causes of stress, and it’s becoming more prevalent. Modern life, it seems, is inventing new ways to increase stress and, ironically, many modern innovations designed to make life easier are responsible.

Stress has always been a natural part of life and is actually an important survival mechanism often called the fight or flight response. In the days when humankind lived a hunter/gatherer lifestyle, stress was often the difference between eating and being eaten.

Imagine the scenario: you are tracking tonight’s dinner through the jungle when you inadvertently stumble into the path to a hungry bear. In response to this obviously stressful situation your body:

• Increases adrenalin production
• Speeds up your heart rate
• Dumps lots of glucose into your blood for energy
• Increases muscle tension
• Increases nerve transmission speed

The result? Your body is primed to run or fight for your survival. After doing one or the other, and having removed yourself from the source of stress, your body recovers and soon returns to its pre-stress state. Your heart rate returns to normal, as does your blood glucose levels.

Muscle tension eases and cortisol is produced to counteract the effect of adrenalin. Fast forward to the 21st century, and your body responds the same way to modern stresses. Unlike our ancestor stress is often a constant companion and we have fewer outlets.

For modern people, the physical threat of hungry bears has been replaced with: blaring alarm clocks, commuter traffic, money worries, demanding jobs, crashing computers, the news/politics, noisy neighbours, unreasonable deadlines, and all the other things that seemingly conspire to make your life more difficult than it needs to be.

Stress can even haunt your dreams!

Being constantly stressed plays havoc with every system in your body and can cause a wide range of health problems including:

• Heart disease
• Hypertension
• Impotence
• Asthma and allergies
• Obesity, often caused by comfort eating
• Diabetes
• Headaches
• Depression and anxiety
• Digestive and gastrointestinal problems e.g. ulcers
• Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases
• Accelerated ageing
• Premature death

Many of the causes of stress are unavoidable. Short of selling all your possessions and moving to a desert island, it’s all but impossible to remove external stresses. However, if you know that certain situations cause you stress and they are avoidable, it’s a good idea to do so.

For other sources of stress that you cannot avoid, it’s important to learn how to make them less impactful.

Good stress coping strategies include:

• Deep breathing
• Mediation
• Positive mindset
• Better time management skills
• Learning to prioritise
• Learning to delegate
• Avoiding perfectionism
• Negotiating more realistic deadlines
• Getting plenty of sleep
• Eating healthily
• Not abusing alcohol or junk food
• Exercise…

Exercise is a very powerful stress management tool. It addresses both many of the symptoms and causes of stress at the same time, and its effects are often long lasting.

Those effects include:

Increased insulin sensitivity and decreased blood glucose – when you exercise, your muscles use glucose for fuel. Increased insulin sensitivity also helps lower your blood glucose levels. Elevated blood glucose can contribute to diabetes and systemic inflammation. Inflammation is linked to a great many diseases including heart disease and Alzheimer’s.

Increased vasodilation and decreased blood pressure – to supply your muscles with enough oxygen during exercise, your body dilates or opens up your blood vessels. This helps reduce blood pressure by lowering the resistance to blood flow. Reduced blood pressure is an important factor for reducing the risk of heart disease.

Increased endorphin production leading to a better mood – many of life’s stressful events are much less impactful when you are in a good mood. Exercise increases endorphin production – your body’s natural mood enhancer.

Distraction from whatever is causing you stress – exercise is meditation on the move. Whatever you do, it will distract you from many of life’s stressors. It’s hard to think about your boss and his unrealistic deadlines when you are concentrating on counting reps or keeping up with a Zumba class. An opening like this can often lead to the creative breakthrough that allows you to deal with whatever was stressing you in the first place.

Reduced muscle tension – a good workout will leave your muscles feeling like wrung-out sponges and the tension that was responsible for your neck and headache will often disappear.

Better sleep – stress can keep you awake at night, and tiredness has a way of magnifying whatever is causing you to feel stressed in the first place. Exercise can help you sleep longer and better.  This additional mental energy and focus will improve your ability to cope with the stresses of the coming day.

An outlet for anger and aggression – much of the problem with stress is that it is socially unacceptable to let it out in public. You can’t drive your fist through your computer when it crashes and loses all your work, even though you really want to. Instead, you have to sit and simmer.

A hard workout allows you to let out your pent-up anger and aggression in a way that won’t get you into trouble. Workouts that let you really “go for it” are great for this purpose.

Examples include strength training, boxing, sprinting, and circuit training.

Stress could be the greatest health threat you face. It’s also an unavoidable fact of modern life. Use coping strategies whenever you can, and exercise regularly to help counteract many of the health risks associated with stress. However, if stress is causing you more problems than you can deal with on your own, you should seek medical advice. Stress IS that serious.