Stress is a reality of everyday life. While stressful situations are difficult to avoid, our chances of remaining healthy and feeling good greatly depend on how we manage, cope with and recover from stress.
In order to combat the effects of stress, we must understand the role it plays in our physical health. When we feel stressed, our bodies release cortisol, an important hormone in the body secreted by the adrenal glands. Although stress isn’t the only reason that cortisol is secreted into the bloodstream, it has been termed “the stress hormone” because it’s secreted in higher levels during the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response to stress, and is responsible for several stress-related changes in the body.
Higher and more prolonged levels of cortisol in the bloodstream (like those associated with chronic stress) have been shown to have negative effects, such as:
- Impaired cognitive performance
- Suppressed thyroid function
- Blood sugar imbalances such as hyperglycemia
- Decreased bone density
- A decrease in muscle tissue
- Higher blood pressure
- Lowered immunity and inflammatory responses in the body, slowed wound healing, and other health consequences
- Increased abdominal fat, which is associated with a greater amount of health problems than fat deposited in other areas of the body. Some of the health problems associated with increased stomach fat are heart attacks, strokes, higher levels of “bad” cholesterol (LDL) and lower levels of “good” cholesterol (HDL), which can lead to other health problems!
Small increases of cortisol have some positive effects:
- A quick burst of energy for survival reasons
- Heightened memory functions
- A burst of increased immunity
- Lower sensitivity to pain
- Helps maintain homeostasis in the body
While cortisol is an important and helpful part of the body’s response to stress, it’s important that the body is able to activate a relaxation response so the body’s functions can return to normal following a stressful event. Unfortunately, in our current high-stress culture, the body’s stress response is activated so often that the body doesn’t always have a chance to return to normal, resulting in a state of chronic stress.
Medical professionals prescribe lifestyle changes that promote stress reduction to those patients suffering from chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels. One specific prescription is the integration of a regular, moderate exercise programme.
Pilates is a form of exercise that improves functional strength and flexibility and helps to correct posture. As well as the many physical benefits associated with Pilates, stress reduction can also be achieved through its core principles: breathing techniques, concentration, imagery, control, routine, precision, flow and mind-body awareness.