How Emotional Stress Affects the Body and 5 Tips to Cope Better

May is Mental Health Month, so this week we’re talking about a commonly ignored aspect of health: emotional stress.

There are two types of stress: physical stress and emotional stress. Emotional stress is a result of how you respond to what you see and hear around you, and it can really take a toll if not addressed.

What Happens During Emotional Stress?

Long-term emotional stress is hard on our adrenal glands. These two glands sit atop each kidney and make hormones that control and regulate blood pressure, burn fat and protein, and react to stressors such as injury and illness.

When the adrenal glands are taxed, it can raise your blood pressure, make it harder for your body to control blood sugar, and negatively affect your immune system.

Unfortunately, it’s hard for your nervous system to know if stress is physical or emotional. So if you’re very emotionally stressed by life, your body might react as if you’re truly facing a life-or-death physical threat—activating your emergency stress system! And the longer you’re in a state of stress, the harder it is for your system to turn it off.

This can upset many systems of your body, including your immune system, digestive system, heart, and brain. It can even increase the frequency by which you age and make your mental health more vulnerable.

Thankfully, we can stop this cycle by taking good care of our emotional health. Here are some things you can do that might help.

#1 Examine How Your Inner Dialogue Relates to Stress

Many emotional stress responses are based on beliefs you hold and daily thoughts. These often result from your upbringing, family or friend dynamics throughout life, or other beliefs you’ve developed based on past experiences.

Breathe deeply and think about something that causes you emotional stress. Now, consider what thoughts you have related to that stressor.

For example, do you feel like you’re never enough? Do you feel pressured to work yourself to the bone or do something you don’t enjoy? Do you feel pulled in a million directions while not having time for yourself?

Write down your observations and briefly meditate or pray on them. And question whether they’re actually true!

Most of the time, these thoughts about ourselves are greatly exaggerated and pretty unkind. Ask yourself, “Would I say what I’m thinking about myself to a dear friend or loved one?”

Spend some time thinking about how you can flip the script to more positive, loving thoughts towards yourself and your situation.

#2 Practice Mindfulness

Meditation and other mindfulness practices can help you experience stress and respond to your thoughts in a healthier, more productive way.

Instead of thinking a thought and immediately letting it cause distress, mindfulness can teach you to recognize thoughts are just thoughts. We can choose how we respond to them.

Try downloading a meditation app on your phone, searching for guided meditations or yoga classes on YouTube, or going to a yoga or meditation class in your local community. You’ll likely be surprised just how much of a difference it can make.

#3 Find Healthy Distractions

While it’s good to express your emotions (especially if you’ve been holding them back), healthy distractions can also prevent negative thoughts from taking over your day-to-day life.

Write down some healthy activities that can get you out of your head and into the present moment. Maybe that’s seeing a feel-good movie, spending time with friends or family, going for a walk or run, learning a new skill or hobby, or cooking a healthy meal at home.

#4 Make Sure You’re Getting the Right Nutrition

Your body works as a whole system—mind and body. Make sure your body is getting nourished along with your mind.

It’s tempting to turn to sugary or rich comfort foods during times of emotional stress, but getting proper nutrition can actually help support a healthier system overall. Don’t let your focus on diet add to your stress; simply think of whole foods as a way to support a more stable physical and emotional state.

Calcium, zinc, and magnesium are especially depleted by emotional stress. A lack of each can impact blood pressure, insulin, and water retention. Nutrient-dense foods like nuts and seeds, beans, leafy greens, and fish are good sources of these.

#5 Talk to Someone

And last but most important: Don’t worry or suffer alone. Talk with someone, whether that’s a close friend or family member, therapist, or life or health coach. They can help you address specific areas of emotional stress impacting you the most. There’s no shame in asking for help when you need it.

The Bottom Line

Even if life feels overwhelming now, know there are always solutions available to reduce stress and help you better navigate this precious life—with your body and mind!

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