Stress symptoms may be affecting your health, even though you might not realize it. You may think illness is to blame for that irritating headache, your frequent insomnia or your decreased productivity at work. But stress may actually be the cause.
When we encounter a stressor, our brain and body respond by triggering a series of chemical reactions that prepare us to engage with or run away from the stressor.
Two hormones that we release are adrenaline, which prepares muscles for exertion, and cortisol, which regulates bodily functions. If a stressor is exceptionally frightening, it might cause us to freeze and become incapacitated (Fink, 2010).
Keep reading for a list of how stress impacts our body, mood, and behavior.
Most Common Effects of Stress…
On your body:
Headaches, muscle tension or pain, chest pain, fatigue, altered sex drive, upset stomach, rising blood pressure, digestive system slowing down (or stopping), increased heart rate, blood clotting more quickly and difficulty sleeping.
On your mood:
Anxiety, restlessness, lack of motivation or focus, feeling overwhelmed, irritability or anger problems, sadness or depression.
On your behavior:
Overeating or undereating, angry outbursts, drug or alcohol misuse (which can lead to bigger problems like addiction), tobacco use, social withdrawal, and exercising less often.
Stress hormones can cloud decision making and even lead to “freezing up” – as well as affecting your relationships, communication, and physical health (heart, diabetes, stroke risk, etc.).
Further, the more critical concern is the impact of chronic stress on our ability to think clearly and make good decisions. Stress hormones (cortisol especially) have a negative impact on our ability to think clearly.
Stress takes a toll on our bodies
There’s also compelling evidence that living under constant stress can hurt your body over time.
One study found more prominent premature aging in the high-stress mothers caring for disabled children (Group A) than non-disabled children (Group B). In fact, it was discovered that the individuals in Group A were 10 years older at a cellular level than the individuals in Group B, who were the same chronological age. This study is a stark reminder that caregivers need to be able to take time out of their day to care for themselves as well.
A related phenomenon is the theory of “minority stress,” where members of marginalized communities (such as BIPOC, LGBTQ and people with disabilities) tend to experience worse health outcomes than the general population. This often manifests in poor mental health and increased rates of heart disease and hypertension. This isn’t because those groups are less likely to care for themselves, but because ongoing discrimination is a stressful experience, and sometimes it can create barriers to health care.
8 steps you can take to reduce stress
For most people, completely avoiding stress is unrealistic. However, there are a few things you can do to reduce the effect stressful experiences have on you:
- Try mindfulness exercises. Meditation, breathing exercises, visualization, and similar practices help relax your body and mind. You don’t have to make yourself sit still – taking a long walk, dancing to your favorite song or working on an art project are all ways to connect with your body that may be easier if you’re a high-energy person.
- Get good quality sleep. Setting a bedtime routine is key for processing stress. If you struggle with insomnia or seem to feel tired no matter how much you sleep, speak to your doctor – there may be a more serious physical health issue at play.
- Exercise regularly. When your fight-or-flight response is triggered, exercise gives your body a way to release stress and floods your body with endorphins – neurotransmitters that help you feel calmer and happier.
- Eat a balanced diet. Eating a healthy diet with fewer processed foods, and increasing your intake of lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats can help reduce stress hormones. Foods to avoid are alcohol, caffeine, simple carbs, and soda.
- Schedule time off in your calendar. It may not always be easy to take a break. But research shows that when we push ourselves too hard we’re less productive and ultimately more stressed. Giving yourself time to recharge and focus on yourself is important to prevent burnout and poor health outcomes.
- Reach out to your community. If you’re struggling to juggle all your responsibilities, it’s okay to ask for help from friends, family, and neighbors. You don’t have to shoulder every burden alone. The people who love you don’t want to see you suffering.
- Find local resources. It can be hard to overcome stresses like wondering how you’re going to pay the bills or where to find your next meal. Oregon residents can contact 211 Info for referrals for rental assistance, housing, food, child care and more.
- Seek out mental health support. If you’re still feeling overwhelmed by stress, or having trouble developing healthy habits, you may be dealing with more than ordinary stress. Many mental health conditions can make it difficult to cope with stressful experiences. A trained mental health provider can help you identify factors that are contributing and work with you to address them.
If the stress in your life feels out of control and you don’t know where to start, we’re here to help. At LifeWorks NW, we provide mental health, addiction, depression and holistic health solutions for all levels of support that people need, when and how they need it.
You deserve to live a higher quality of life. You deserve to experience more peace and happiness. For more information about our services or to make an appointment with us, go here.
Want to learn more? Watch this short TedTalk about how stress affects your brain and body.