How chronic stress impacts your health
We’re all probably familiar with the ways stress affects our moods.
We get anxious. Overwhelmed. Maybe even irritable.
But our bodies also try to tell us when we’re stressed out — meaning the pressure we’re under is becoming too much or lasting too long.
So, what’s stress? And how does our body let us know when we’re truly stressed out?
Stress: The hormonal response
Stress is a normal part of life and can be good or bad for your body. For example, a bit of stress can motivate you to give a great presentation at work or ace a tough job interview. But major stress, even for a short time, or constant pressure over a long period, can be bad for your health.
“A stressful situation — whether you’ve just narrowly avoided a car accident, or you’re worried about losing your job — triggers the release of hormones that make our hearts pound, our breathing speed up, our muscles tense and our digestion slow down,” says Dr. Laura Keys Campbell assistant director of Geisinger Adult Psychology Services. “This ‘fight or flight’ response is a survival mechanism that lets us react quickly to dangerous situations. But when stress is chronic and this system is activated too often, it can take a toll on our bodies.”
The brain can actually start the cascade of hormones before our visual centers process the perceived stressor. The reaction starts in a part of the brain called the amygdala, which processes emotions like fear. When the amygdala senses danger, it sends something like a “distress signal” to the hypothalamus, which communicates to the rest of the body via the nervous system. When the hypothalamus gives the signal, the hormone epinephrine — also called adrenaline — is released into the bloodstream, making the heart beat faster. In a split second, you’re breathing more rapidly. You’re more alert, and your senses sharpen. And nutrients including blood sugar and stored fats flood the bloodstream, giving you extra energy.
In a truly dangerous situation, this response can be lifesaving. But if the reaction is triggered too often, the very system that’s meant to protect us can be harmful.
“Research shows that chronic stress — and the hormones that surge through the body when it’s under stress — contribute to high blood pressure, weight gain and susceptibility to infections and viruses,” Dr. Campbell says. “Over time, stress can also cause changes in the brain that may be linked to depression, anxiety and even addiction. And if stress is left unmanaged, it can heighten the effects of diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and chronic pain conditions.”
Dr. Campbell adds, “There are emotional tolls, too, including irritability, sleeplessness and difficulty concentrating or remembering things.”
What to do. And a few things to avoid.
It might be tempting to combat stress by overeating or undereating, drinking alcohol or using tobacco. But doing any of those things provides temporary relief, at best — and only adds to health problems in the long run.
Better options include exercise, deep breathing, meditation and yoga. Getting enough sleep and eating a healthy diet can also help your body deal with stress.
“Exercise is an especially great way to reduce or eliminate stress, boost your energy levels and improve your mood — not to mention your overall health,” Dr. Campbell notes. “And you don’t have to run miles to get the benefits for your mind and body. You can start small by taking a daily walk.”
Need more help or guidance?
If you’re having a hard time identifying what’s causing your stress, or the effects aren’t going away, it’s time to seek help. Your doctor can work with you to identify causes and discuss coping techniques. They might also refer you to a licensed therapist or a professional counselor who can help you pinpoint and possibly eliminate sources of stress.
And if constant stress leaves you with sudden chest pain and shortness of breath, get help immediately.
“Listen to your body,” Dr. Campbell says. “And when it tells you it’s under stress, or you need help coping, pay attention to that message, so you can enjoy a long, healthy and high-quality life.”