Between work, school, travel, children, spouses, over-scheduling, mounting bills and other day-to-day stressors, it is not abnormal to encounter stress. Stress, in many ways, is a natural element of human existence; it is one that often temporarily disturbs our lives. However, for some, stress does not come and go quickly, it lingers. If stress becomes long-term and chronic, it can wreak havoc on your body, making you susceptible to illness. Should a condition or illness already be present, it may be worsened.
How Chronic Stress Affects Your Health
When a stressful event or potential threat occurs, there is a section of our brain (the hypothalamus) that triggers an alarm system in our body. This system causes the adrenal glands to release a flood of hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline. While adrenaline boosts the rate of your heart, causes your blood pressure to spike and increases your level of energy, cortisol is the primary stress hormone. Cortisol not only increases the amount of glucose (sugar) in our bloodstream, it improves how our brain uses that sugar. It also:
- Modifies our immune system
- Restrains our digestive system, reproductive system and growth activities
- Controls our fight-or-flight response
- Heightens our cognitive function
- Relieves pain
- Boosts and makes the substances our body needs to repair tissues
Typically, once the stressful experience has come to an end, our hormone levels and the functions they regulate go back to normal. Without the flood of adrenaline and cortisol, our heart rate and blood pressure stabilizes and our other systems begin to operate as they ordinarily would. But if the stressor(s) become a constant in our lives, those elevated levels and functions remain on, which can result in a number of negative health impacts, such as:
- Chronic inflammation
- Weight gain
- Frequent colds
- Sleep apnea
- Asthma attacks
- Heart disease (including stroke and heart attack)
- High blood pressure
- Muscle soreness
Chronic tissue inflammation, in particular, has been shown to allow certain viruses and diseases, including HIV, to spread. This, according to some researchers, occurs because during bouts of inflammation, the body summons its immune cells. These healthy cells can then be targeted and destroyed by disease.
Tips for Reducing Stress to Counteract Health Problems
While each of us will encounter a variety of stressful situations in our daily lives, it is important to take the necessary steps to reduce stress in order to counteract negative health problems that occur as a result.
- Exercise: Regular exercise increases the number of endorphins in your body, which helps you feel good. Additionally, regular exercise has been shown to boost mood, improve your sleep quality, lower symptoms of depression and anxiety and improve overall health status.
- Breathe: Take time throughout the day to stop and breathe. Close your eyes, inhale deeply through your nose, hold that breathe briefly and then exhale slowly through pursed lips.
- Don’t overcommit: Our lives can be hectic, and most people’s schedules are crammed with a variety of commitments. Be careful not to overcommit yourself, as stretching yourself thin leads to increased stress.
- Laugh: Laughter truly is the best medicine! Let your guard down and do something that will make you laugh, whether it is going to a comedy show, performing karaoke or hosting game night.
- Choose your company wisely: When you're stressed out, the last person you need to be around is "Negative Nancy." Rather, surround yourself with positive people who are optimistic and enjoy celebrating life.