Understanding How Stress Affects Your Health

stress can affect more than your mood--it affects your health too

Stress is something we all live with in our day-to-day lives. Between the obligations of work, commuting, bills, chores, medical health, school and raising children, it sometimes feels like we can never take any time to just relax and breathe.

This can be problematic, as stress can have very negative effects on your mind and body in both the short and long term. Here are some of the ways stress impacts your health, along with suggestions for how to lower your stress and take better care of yourself.

Stress vs. Anxiety

Stress and anxiety are commonly conflated with each other. However, they are quite different. Stress is usually related to something in our life that we have control over or could be managed and dealt with better, be it professional concerns, school, relationships, illness or injury (anxiety disorders themselves can be a separate source of stress), current events, or raising children.

Anxiety, on the other hand, is when feelings of worry do not have a clear cause or when the feelings are bigger or more disruptive than the situation seems to warrant. Anxiety can also be a response to situations we can’t control.

How stress affects us depends on a lot of factors. The same stressor can affect two people very differently, depending on who they are, their personal history, what they’re going through, and the variety of coping skills and support systems they already have in place (or the lack thereof). 

Chronic exposure to seemingly small stressors can also add up to significant stress or even anxiety proper over time. This type of long-term stress is not good for your health.

The Effects of Stress on the Body

stress causes physical symptoms in the body, like muscle pain

It’s common to associate stress with headaches, insomnia, and an irritable mood, but there are far more complications that can be caused by stress. Some of these include:

  • Increased risk of heart disease. Stress can directly increase heart rate and blood flow, and causes the release of cholesterol and triglycerides into the bloodstream. Stress also damages your heart because stress hormones increase your heart rate and constrict your blood vessels. This forces your heart to work harder, and increases your blood pressure. According to the American Institute of Stress, the incidence rate of heart attacks and sudden death increases after natural disasters, which are major stress-inducing events.
  • Developing or worsening asthma. Many studies have shown that stress can worsen asthma, while some suggest that a parent's chronic stress might even increase the risk of their children developing asthma. One study looked at how parental stress affected the asthma rates of young children who were also exposed to air pollution or whose mothers smoked during pregnancy. The kids with stressed-out parents had a substantially higher risk of developing asthma.
  • Increased weight gain or disordered eating. Stress can cause weight gain in several ways. Stress causes higher levels of the hormone cortisol, which has been shown to increase the amount of fat that's deposited in the abdomen. Stress can also result in overeating (“stress eating”), or undereating and loss of appetite. Stress can also lessen the desire to be active and, when combined with an increase in food consumption, can lead to heavy weight gain. 
  • Headaches. Headaches are one of the most common symptoms of stress. Stress is the most common cause for not only tension headaches, but for migraines as well.
  • Accelerated aging. Stress has a large effect on the aging process. Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, discovered that stress shortens telomeres, structures on the end of chromosomes that protect your DNA as cells replicate. This leads to the inevitable signs of aging: wrinkles, weak muscles, poor eyesight, and more. One study compared the DNA of mothers who were under high stress with women who were not. Chronic stress seemed to accelerate aging by about 9 to 17 years.
  • Depression. Along with headaches, depression is another common symptom of chronic stress. One survey found that people who had stress related to their jobs -- like demanding work with few rewards -- had an 80% higher risk of developing depression within a few years than people with lower-stress jobs.

Managing Stress

manage stress to maintain calm and stay healthy

Considering the potential negative effects of stress on the body, it’s fortunate that there are many healthy ways to help manage it. It’s also important to avoid the unhealthy coping mechanisms that are common shortcuts for stressed people. 

Some common unhealthy coping habits include distracting ourselves without addressing the underlying causes of stress, getting angry at other people, or using drugs and alcohol to try and temporarily numb the stress. Most of these coping strategies deflect or distract us from the actual underlying issue. While this can feel helpful in the short term, it’s not helpful in addressing the underlying problem and can lead to even more stress or poor health.

On the other hand, positive coping mechanisms and management for stress include:

  • Active Management: Active management of stress involves direct or “active” activities or behavior changes such as getting regular physical activity, practicing relaxation techniques -- such as deep breathing, meditation, yoga or tai chi -- spending time with family and friends (provided they themselves are not a stressor), eating healthily, sauna bathing regularly, sleeping regularly, and setting aside time for hobbies, such as reading a book or listening to music.
  • Inactive Management: Inactive management of stress involves activities we would more commonly associate with “relaxing” such as watching television, surfing the internet or playing video games, but these should be used sparingly and not as a substitute for active management as they may actually increase your stress over the long term.

Modern research is teaching us how important effective stress management is to our long-term health. How do you deal with stress? Do you meditate, draw, read, or work out? Let us know your favorite methods!

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