Is Stress Silently Killing You?

Is Stress Silently Killing You?
by megan dahlman
May 21, 2024

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So far this year…

The most popular podcast episode I’ve release has been 324. Menopausal Belly Fat & Why It’s Killing You. It struck a chord.

  • The excess fat around your belly could be irritating and maybe aesthetically unpleasant, but it could be really dangerous too.
    • It could determine whether you’re still here in 10 years, thriving and living a healthy life with your family doing the things you want to do OR you’re extremely sick and even dying. It’s that important.
    • Cardiovascular diseases are the number one killer for women over the age of 50, and when you have excess belly fat or visceral fat, the stats of contracting a serious cardiovascular condition goes way up.
  • Living in a state of constant stress is one of the biggest contributing factors to not just excess belly fat (visceral fat), but also higher incidences of cardiovascular diseases.

My own Stress Story:

  • Like so many of us, 2020 and 2021 were the years from hell for me and my family. (Covid, homeschooling, major changes in my business, wildfires, ice storm, moving to another state, building a house, living in a trailer.)
  • Dodgeball - and NOT winning
  • There were so many days where I would just put on a smile and go through the motions, but I was struggling to breathe
    • Physically becoming worn down
    • Most days, I felt like I was having a heart attack - it felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest
  • This is a perfect example of chronic stress…stressors that you just push through but they stretch on and on, impacting your health.

STRESS - Major Health Impact:

Often, stress can feel just mental and emotional - not physical. But nothing could be further from the truth.

When your body feels stressed, it turns on the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight response). Your body feels threatened, so:

  • Your hormones go into action:
    • adrenals produce more cortisol to amp up inflammation in the body for healing
  • Your Central Nervous System goes on the alert, sending powerful signals to your muscles and creating excess tension in muscle fibers
  • Blood sugar levels rise to get increased energy to your tissues
  • You even begin to breathe more shallow and draw in short, quick breaths that mimic
    • Athletes amp themselves up with short, quick breaths

This is all good and wonderful in a normal, acutely stressful environment. Once the stressful situation has passed, the sympathetic nervous system hands things over to the parasympathetic nervous system, and everything chills out again.

But what happens when you stay stressed - When all of these mechanism stay ON?

  • chronically high cortisol levels in the body
    • adrenal fatigue
    • significant visceral fat
    • chronic inflammation that leads to joint pain and fatigue
  • chronically high blood sugar levels that lead to insulin resistance and diabetes. (In fact, stress-induced diabetes is a very real thing)
  • Nervous system begins to go haywire, leading to chronic fatigue, lethargy and even muscle dysfunction
  • Metabolism begins to slow
  • Other normal functions get impacted, like being able to sleep at night (when you go to bed, melatonin should be high while cortisol & adrenaline should be low, and then vice versa), which in turn impacts your energy and motivation levels the next day
  • All of these things contribute to a higher liklihood of developing obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and even some cancers.

Let me also add that when your body has waning levels of estrogen, progesterone and testosterone, the physical impacts of stress are even greater. These sex hormones are very powerful at counteracting the stress hormones and helping hold your body closer into that parasympathetic state. But remove those hormones and it’s almost like a free-for-all.

So when I say that becoming a Stress-Managing Ninja is important for your body composition and your physical health, I mean it. I don’t care how perfect your macros are, or how hard you’re working out, if your stress is not in check, there is a hurricane going on inside of you that nothing that  penetrate.

Managing Your Stress

I’m going to give you some simple tactics to manage stress.

Your goal is to tone down your sympathetic nervous system and have a few moments every day where your body actively settles into the parasympathetic state. (This is not woo-woo, this is how your body functions, ok.)

Here are 3 things that you can try that have been shown to do exactly this:

  • Patterned breathing or “box breathing”
    • Why does this work?
      • When you get stressed, your breathing rate increase and you begin breathing more shallow at the top of your rib cage
      • By doing rhythmic, patterned breathing, you can actively override that nervous system mechanism, and give your brain the signal that it can relax
    • Here’s how to do it
      • If you’re really stressed, it will feel weird and forced at first, but persevere - you’ll get more familiar with this
      • At first, breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth - As you get better, only use your nose
      • Two methods
        • Box breathing - Inhale - 4, hold - 4, exhale - 4, hold - 4
        • Patterned breathing - Inhale - 5, Hold - 5, Exhale - 8
      • Place your hands on your belly with your thumbs touching your bottom ribs. As you inhale, try to pull the air into your hands and that thumb
  • Going for a leisurely walk
    • Why does this work?
      • Removing yourself from the environment, fresh air outside, and gently moving your body all help to tone down your sympathetic nervous system
    • How to do it
      • This one’s really easy - just go for a walk
        • 5-10 minutes is enough to do it
        • Try to not engage with anything that’s really stimulating (a frantic conversation, a podcast that makes you charged up)
        • Keep it relaxed - this is not a power walk
        • Take breaths, look up, look around, smile at every person you see
  • Gentle stretching & movement (We used to do an evening stretch + body scan at my retreats)
    • Why does this work?
      • Once again, stimulating your muscles, nerves and even your lymphatic system in gentle ways gets your brain to relax and start sending those parasympathetic nervous system signals
      • It also teaches your muscles to release tension
    • How to do it
      • The point is NOT to burn calories - the point is to feel good and to relax
      • Start small - Just 3-5 movements that target each area of your body, especially your hips and shoulders
      • Keep it dynamic with a few moves that you can sit and hold for extra breath work
      • Use a guided flow like taking a Tai Chi or yoga class, or doing one of my short routines on my YouTube channel
      • You should feel relaxed, refreshed and mellow at the end, not sweaty and tired
  • Other things to try
    • Reading, playing or listening to music, art, cooking, taking a bath, a nap, journaling or writing
  • What doesn’t work
    • Doing “healthy” things that are actually creating more stress in the body
      • Constant high-intensity workouts without ever recovering or using buffering mechanisms
      • Restricting food
      • Ignoring your sleep
      • Scrolling on your phone and even engaging in needless arguments online

Big Takeaway

My bigest takeaway that I have for you today is to start taking your stress seriously. It’s not just mental or emotional, it’s also very physical. It could be causing a storm to brew inside of you that leads not just to weight gain around your middle, but eventually some MASSIVE health issues that are really hard to reverse down the road.

Don’t play defense:

  • Choose 2 things every single day to do that turn off your sympathetic nervous system and turn on the parasympathetic system - even better if you do 3 things every day that do this.

More Resources & Links

Try this relaxing routine! Bedtime Stretches to Improve Your Sleep

Listen to Episode 324: Menopausal Belly Fat & Why It’s Killing You

[Stress-Induced Diabetes: A Review](https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9561544/#:~:text=The central and peripheral nervous,for insulin and insulin resistance.)

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Trainer, nutrition coach, and Christian mom — in a culture that’s obsessed with “gym-selfies” and a number on the scale, I’m passionate about helping moms discover what it feels like to actually love their bodies and thrive in them.
Read More About Megan
Hi! I’m Megan.
Self-Care Simplified is for Christian moms that want to be equipped and encouraged to take simple steps towards the healthy life you want for yourself and the people you love.
Be sure to subscribe to Self-Care Simplified wherever you listen to your favorite podcast.
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Trainer, nutrition coach, and Christian mom — in a culture that’s obsessed with “gym-selfies” and a number on the scale, I’m passionate about helping moms discover what it feels like to actually love their bodies and thrive in them.
Read More About Megan
Hi! I’m Megan.
take the quiz
Self-Care Simplified is for Christian moms that want to be equipped and encouraged to take simple steps towards the healthy life you want for yourself and the people you love.
Be sure to subscribe to Self-Care Simplified wherever you listen to your favorite podcast.
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