How Stress Affects Your Health
Updated: Apr 12
April is Stress Awareness Month
Stress is a normal part of everyone’s life. It's the result of a natural process, classically referred to as a fight or flight response, where your body decides to stay and fight impending danger or run from it. When you are put in a stressful situation, your heart rate and blood flow increase, getting your body ready to deal with a current crisis. Your body is suddenly energized and better equipped to complete the task that is being asked of it. In this way, occasional stress can be good.
When your body constantly is being bombarded with demands—mental, physical or emotional— chronic stress begins to take hold. Chronic stress can lower your immune system, cause arrhythmia or irregular heart rate, chest pain and even heart attack and stroke. It can worsen conditions such as type 2 diabetes, asthma or gastrointestinal problems. Chronic stress can also lead to depression and anxiety, alcohol and tobacco use, poor eating habits and trouble sleeping.
Impact of stress on your body
Your body releases cortisol when it feels threatened or stressed. Cortisol is a hormone that increases sugar in your bloodstream, increases glucose in your brain and slows down your immune and digestive systems. This is part of your natural fight-or-flight response to danger. However, your response to stress can also have lasting unintended effects.
Impact of stress on your physical health - In high stress situations, like car accidents for instance, this system works as intended. But, when your brain perceives everyday inconveniences like traffic and work as threats, it continuously releases cortisol which has a disruptive effect on your physical health. Chronic stress is bad for your body; headaches, digestion issues, muscle tension, fatigue, frequent bouts of sickness and sleep issues can all be directly linked to chronic stress.
Impact of stress on your mental health - Cortisol also affects your mental well-being. The effects of stress on your mental health manifest in changes of mood, feelings of anxiousness, sadness, restlessness, being overwhelmed, irritability, loss of motivation and an inability to calm your mind.
Impact of stress on sleep - Physically and mentally not feeling well occasionally develops into sleeplessness. Unfortunately, your brain and body can best manage stress after a good night’s sleep, so being stressed and having trouble falling asleep can feel like you are stuck in a negative cycle.
While it might be impossible to negate all stressors in your life, there are ways to manage it so that it does not have as big of an impact on your overall health:
Prioritize. At the beginning of your day, review what you need to get done and prioritize what has to be done, what could be done and what can wait. Learn to say no if you can’t reasonably accomplish an additional task.
Exercise regularly - Exercise is a natural stress reliever which releases endorphins into your bloodstream. Endorphins are chemicals that help your body to reduce stress. Also, exercise boosts immunity, among many other health benefits, and it is a great way to get your mind off intrusive thoughts. Save vigorous workouts for during the day but to help unwind before bedtime try a long walk or relaxing yoga stretches.
Practice mindfulness - Mindfulness means being aware and present in the moment. Simply focusing on the moment rather than in the future or the past can help reduce stress by breaking you out of a cycle of disruptive thinking. Breathe deeply, close your eyes, and count to 10. Try to clear your head, and think positively. What in your life is going well right now? What are you thankful for? Positive thoughts in the present help ground you. Meditation, yoga, and Pilates also help you by becoming more in tune with your body in the present and help promote deep breathing. You can take classes at a gym or follow along with hundreds of free videos on YouTube.
Keep a Journal - Sometimes the simple act of writing something down can have a major effect on stress. If there is something that is bothering you when you are trying to sleep, turn on a soft lamp, grab a bedside journal and jot down your thoughts. For example: if working on a big project, make a list of all the things you need to do to prepare; then check off what you have already done. Seeing how much you have accomplished may help you quiet your mind.
Hang out with your pets and loved ones - Spending time with pets, loved ones and close friends has been shown to significantly reduce stress. If you have had a stressful week, take a long walk with your dog, or meet a friend for dinner after work. Open up and talk to your closest friends or family members. Bottling things up can add to your stress.
Laugh every day - The physical act of laughing has been shown to reduce stress. Even something as simple as a wide smile can send signals to your brain that it does not need to be on high alert. If you are feeling hyper-stressed try watching your favorite funny movie, see a comedy show or visit a friend who always makes you laugh.
Get enough sleep - Go to bed on time to help you feel refreshed and awake the next day. A lack of sleep in itself can cause you to feel more stressed, or add to the stress of your day because it will be harder to concentrate. If your stressors are preventing you from falling asleep, go into another room and do a relaxing activity to help you feel sleepy, such as deep breathing, stretching or reading.