Stress is a fact of life for all of us. We experience it at our jobs, at home, even when we are driving. A small amount of stress can be beneficial – such as when it helps us meet a tight deadline at work or study harder for an exam. However, for many people, prolonged stress can cause a deterioration in health and contribute to major problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes. Many researchers also believe stress can cause an increased risk of cancer.
So how exactly does stress affect the body? It all starts when your adrenal glands release two key hormones known as adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones are part of the body’s “fight or flight” response. They cause the heart to beat faster, respiration rates to increase, blood vessels to dilate, and even digestive processes to change. While these evolutionary adaptions helped us fight or run away from dangerous animals thousands of years ago, in today’s world they often cause health problems – especially for people who are under chronic stress. Below are just some of the effects stress can have on the body as a whole:
High Blood Pressure
The surge of hormones your body releases when you are in a stressful situation causes your blood pressure to increase temporarily. It is believed that short-term spikes in blood pressure over time may make people more likely to develop hypertension (high blood pressure).
Stress is known to have an effect on the heart. While the exact link between chronic stress and heart attacks is still being studied, it is known that individuals who suffer from high levels of stress are more likely to suffer a heart attack. Acute stress can trigger reduced blood flow to the heart, promote the heart to beat irregularly, and increase the likelihood of blood clotting. This can lead to the development of cardiovascular disease.
Overeating (or Undereating)
People often turn to high-fat and sugary comfort foods such as brownies, donuts and ice cream in times of stress. Although this often makes people temporarily feel better, it can cause weight gain and lead to other health problems down the road. When stressed, some people can also lose their appetite for food, which can lead to poor nutrition.
Blood Sugar Surges
When people are under stress, their liver produces additional glucose to give their body a boost of energy. The unused blood sugar is then reabsorbed by the body. People who suffer from chronic stress may not be able to keep up with this extra glucose surge. This can lead to weight gain and an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Weakened Immune System
Chronic stress alters the body’s immune system responses, causing a decrease in the production of T-cells and B-cells. These two types of white blood cells are essential for fighting off viruses, foreign cells, and cancer cells inside the body. This is why chronic stress makes you more susceptible to getting sick.
When you undergo sudden stress, your body’s muscles tense up. If you are constantly under stress, your muscles don’t get a chance to relax. This can cause headaches, back pain, shoulder pain as well as pain in other parts of the body. Alleviating this pain can be difficult unless the underlying stress is dealt with.
Now that we’ve covered the ways that stress can affect your overall health, it’s important to learn how to reduce it to a manageable level. The following tips have been proven to help. If you are having trouble getting your stress under control, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor.
5 Tips to Reduce Stress
Exercise had been proven to be a very good antidote to stress. Many scientists believe it can actually reduce stress hormone levels in the body. So whether you like to run or walk, play tennis or go climbing, don’t neglect exercise when you feel stressed. It’s a great way to improve your overall health.
Meditation (and guided imagery)
Meditation can help counteract the “fight or flight” response caused by stress by encouraging a state of deep relaxation. This can enhance your mood and even lower blood pressure. Guided imagery is a meditation technique that allows you to imagine yourself in a setting that helps you feel calmer and more relaxed – such as lying on a warm beach with the sound of gentle waves lapping on the shore. Some people use smartphone apps, audio books or instructors to help them develop meditation techniques.
There’s a lot of evidence that listening to music can help can help lower blood pressure, heart rate and overall anxiety. Listening to sounds of nature (birds singing, ocean waves, etc.) can also be beneficial. When you are under stress, try setting aside some time each day to listen to some of your favorite sounds.
Time with your pet
Walking your dog or spending time playing with your cat can really help you reduce stress levels. So try a little “pet therapy” the next time you’re feeling pressured and stressed out.
Studies have shown that good social support, such as friends or family members, act as a buffer to the stress that people experience. So it’s important to not withdraw from social activities when you are under stress. For many people, just having a good talk with a friend can help reduce stress.
About Eric Lupoli, DO
Dr. Eric Lupoli started his undergraduate career as an engineering major but quickly realized that he wanted a profession that allowed him to have a daily direct impact on people’s lives. So he moved on to obtain his medical degree at the University of New England in Biddeford, ME.
Dr. Lupoli’s philosophy of care includes following a holistic plan and helping his patients prevent illness by reinforcing the benefits of a healthy...View profile View posts by this doctor