Chronic stress can play a huge role in a long list of illnesses and diseases, including asthma, heart disease, depression, and anxiety. Additionally, stress levels impact your body’s immune system and your ability to perform activities that require even the slightest bit of energy and exertion.
How Stress Affects the Body
Stress is more than an emotion. It is a biological reaction to certain stimuli that can take a very real toll on our health. The body responds to stress on several levels—our muscles tense; blood pressure rises; and adrenaline, epinephrine, and cortisol are released. Our hearts beat faster, we breathe harder (sometimes hyperventilating), digestion is put off balance, and glucose is released into the bloodstream to give us a boost of energy. These changes can be useful when stress is a response to an immediate threat or fear, like having a near miss in traffic or riding a rollercoaster. The real problem presents itself when stress becomes chronic (as the result of long-term worries), such as financial hardships, strained personal relationships, difficulties in the workplace, or concerns about national current events. In cases like these, the constant physiological response wears us down, affecting several major biological systems. Our stores of energy drain. Our bodies produce fewer infection-fighting T-cells, so our immune systems become weak, making it easy for illnesses and diseases to push their way into our lives.
Common Stress-Related Health Problems
At best, chronic stress is uncomfortable and draining. At worst, it can cause life-threatening conditions or even sudden death. Here some health issues to look out for if you suspect your stress has reached an unhealthy level.
- Type 2 Diabetes: While most people can absorb the extra glucose the liver releases during stressful situations, constantly spiking blood sugar can contribute to Type 2 diabetes in people who are obese or genetically susceptible to the disease.
- Heart Disease and Hypertension: When you’re stressed, your blood pressure rises, so it follows that when you’re chronically stressed, you’ll most likely have chronic high blood pressure, also known as hypertension. Stress hormones also signal the heart to beat faster and harder, which over time causes significant wear and tear to the vital organ. Combined, these symptoms increase your chances of developing heart disease and then having a heart attack or stroke.
- Asthma: Because stress often makes us breathe harder and faster, it can trigger attacks in people who already have asthma. Some studies also suggest children whose parents suffer from chronic stress are at a higher risk of developing asthma—although other factors, such as pollution and cigarette smoke, are likely involved.
- Depression: Not coping well with long-term stressful situations, such as a difficult and unsatisfying job, can lead to the development of depression.
- Headaches: The muscle tension that so often accompanies chronic stress can trigger both tension and migraine headaches.
- Digestion Issues: Stress can wreak havoc at all levels of digestion, sometimes altering how well the body absorbs nutrients, causing ulcers, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or constipation.
What to Do About Stress
The first step in managing chronic stress is to recognize what exactly is causing it. If you can change something about it, do so. Developing healthy coping mechanisms can help when altering the situation is not an option. Here are several methods you can try to help reduce stress.
- Breathe Deeply: Focusing on breathing deeply is a quick and effective stress management tool because it can slow the heartbeat and stabilize blood pressure. The best thing about this method is that it is free and can be done anywhere.
- Any Form of Exercise: Exercise releases endorphins, elevates your mood, promotes a sense of well-being, and allows you to focus on your body instead of worries. More good news: Literally anything that gets the body moving — playing a sport you love, taking a walk in the park, dancing the night away, or going for a swim — can all provide exercise’s stress-relieving benefits.
- Practice Mindfulness: For years, people have reported that mindfulness lowers their stress. But now, a study has proven that taking a mindfulness meditation course lowered cortisol (stress hormone) and inflammatory protein levels more than a traditional stress management course. Being mindful simply means being present in your current emotional state and situation without making judgments about either. But you don’t have to take a class to learn this valuable skill, although instruction can help. Bring mindfulness into your everyday life by paying more attention to small things — the way food tastes or, as we discussed earlier, the way it feels to breathe deeply. You can also take advantage of the many guided meditations available online.
- Try Yoga: Yoga is an integrative mind-body practice that incorporates physical exercise, meditation, and controlled, conscious breathing, so it comes as no surprise that it has been shown to reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and help relieve chronic pain, depression, anxiety, and insomnia.
- Get Enough Sleep: Too many sleepless nights can lead to increased levels of cortisol in the body, meaning physiological stress responses will be heightened. Additionally, REM sleep suppresses the production of norepinephrine (another stress hormone) and helps our brains process the events of our lives.
- Stay Hydrated: Dehydration is yet another trigger for the release of cortisol — not to mention every working part of your body needs water to function. For these reasons, dehydration mimics chronic stress with symptoms such as headache, fatigue, increased heart rate, and nausea. So if you’re feeling stressed, try having a glass of water. Hydration isn’t a cure-all, but it can help reduce many health-damaging symptoms in addition to soothing stress.
- Eat High-Fiber and Antioxidant-Rich Foods: Starchy, high-fiber foods—such as beans, sweet potatoes, and oatmeal—contribute to the release of serotonin (a hormone that helps with relaxation) in the brain. Unlike food low in fiber and rich in carbs, high-fiber food won’t trigger a crash. Fruits and vegetables rich in antioxidants also help the body cope with chronic stress by boosting the immune system.
- Have a Massage: Massage does more than relax the tense muscles that can make stress such a pain. It can also lower cortisol, blood pressure, and heart rate while boosting your immune system. These effects make it a perfect option for managing chronic stress. And while it’s nice to get a massage from a partner or a professional, you can gain similar benefits from giving yourself one. This WebMD article describes several methods of self-massage to bring you one step closer to a stress-free life.
- Take a Break for Comedy: Laughter can make most tough situations feel a little more bearable, and there’s a good reason for that. Laughing releases endorphins, increases oxygen intake, and stimulates the muscles, organs, and circulatory system. It promotes relaxation when you finally take a breath and wipe away the cackle-induced tears. So take the time to watch a favorite comedy or sitcom, or just look at plenty of Internet pictures of cats in ridiculous situations. Make time for that one friend who always triggers a gigglefest. Your health—and your stress level—will thank you.
- Talk to a Professional: While all methods we’ve listed can certainly help manage stress, sometimes the pressure is so much that we need a professional’s help. If you’re having a difficult time coping with stress and it’s affecting your quality of life, a licensed mental health professional can help. They’ll work with you to develop a plan to manage your stress based on your specific circumstances.
Don’t let worry, fear, and anger keep you in shackles. Take steps today to liberate yourself from the psychological and physical burden of chronic stress.