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How Stress Impacts Your Health

January 04, 2018

It’s a common refrain.

“I’m so stressed out,” a colleague or a spouse or a friend confides, looking slightly ashamed and more than a little upset. Stress is an unpleasant emotion, and one we’re taught to simply soldier through, despite the negative consequences it can bring to our lives. Life, we assume, is just stressful, and that’s that.

Unfortunately, our fast-paced modern society brings more stressors to our doorstep than ever before, and rather than leaving after a few days, these stressors sometimes stay on as permanent houseguests. They wreak havoc with our emotions, our sleep, our eating habits and our health.

Stress, untreated, can do serious damage to your life and longevity, so it’s crucial to get out in front of it and cope in healthy ways. Before you can do that, though, it’s important to understand what stress is as well as the difference between its acute and chronic versions.

So … What’s the Point?

If you’ve ever suffered from a pounding heart, anxiety, hyperventilation, sweaty armpits, a fluttering stomach or any of the thousand other symptoms of stress, you’ve probably wondered what the heck the point is. It’s so unpleasant, and seems to offer so few benefits, that it’s easy to conclude stress is pointless.

It isn’t, though. The stress response arose at a time when the dangers confronting early man (and the other animals we evolved from) were much more sinister than a late project at work or a divorce in the offing. Danger in caveman times meant animals that wanted to eat you or your babies, potential starvation, and bumps in the night that could actually kill you.

Today, though, this response isn’t as well attuned. With rare exceptions, most of the stress we feel isn’t from life-threatening situations, but from everyday ones: a presentation, a fight with a friend, a shouted exchange in rush hour. Nevertheless, the reduced danger doesn’t reduce the reaction. And when we feel this reaction for too long, it can seriously impact our health and functioning.

Stress and Your Health

Broadly speaking, there are two main types of stress: acute and chronic. Acute stress is the quick and dirty kind, preparing you to flee from a saber-toothed cat or run down a woolly mammoth for dinner. Acute stress is brief and helpful, raising your heart rate, sharpening your senses and activating your lightning-fast decision-making abilities. It’s fight or flight at its best.

One of the reasons stress health is so important is because of the stress cascade that begins every time your flight or fight stress response is triggered. Adrenaline is released, resulting in a higher heart rate, faster blood flow, wide-open lungs and sharpened senses.

At the same time, epinephrine triggers your system to dump glucose and fats into the bloodstream, supplying energy. While this is an important physiological service, prolonged stress results in taxed adrenal glands, reduced immune system function and raised cortisol levels.

These are all factors that can contribute to major health issues Americans face today, such as Cushing’s and Addison’s disease, reports the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

Moreover, when we sustain high levels of stress for long periods of time, the results include “anxiety, insomnia, muscle pain, high blood pressure and a weakened immune system,” explains the American Psychological Association. Plus, they add, “Research shows that stress can contribute to the development of major illnesses, such as heart disease, depression and obesity.”

In your own life, stress may manifest as:

  • Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
  • A tendency to overeat, snack too often and pig out on junky desserts
  • Binge drinking or alcoholism
  • Other forms of substance abuse as a way to cope
  • Sickness that crops up frequently or doesn’t go away
  • An increase in blood pressure, which can lead to heart attack and stroke (a “brain attack”)
  • Unexplained pain and weakness
  • Inability to take action for your health, such as exercising and eating whole, healthy foods
  • Emotional instability or fragility
  • Fights with loved ones. Difficulty concentrating
  • Unexplained fatigue, even if you’re getting your eight hours

In other words, chronic stress leads to a paler, sadder, less robust version of you. It wears you down over time, chipping away at your mental and emotional health if you don’t do anything about it.

Coping with Stress

But here’s the good news: You can combat stress. You have the power to chip away at it too. How?

Most people find a variety of stress-fighting activities that work for them. A few of the more common approaches include

  • Frequent and vigorous exercise
  • Healthy eating low in carbs and sugars
  • >Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Hobbies (reading, writing, gardening, cooking, crafts, Civil War reenactments, you name it)
  • Journaling
  • Playing with dogs or children

Of course, the best way to fight stress in your own life is to leave plenty of time for leisure, to seek out and enjoy the pastimes that make you feel calm and appreciated, to share your life with friends and family members that make you feel worthwhile, and to be kind to your body. It’s also important to remove as many unnecessary stressors from your life as possible: long commutes, late hours, toxic people and unwelcome tasks.

But be careful not to add new stress to your life by trying to de-stress all at once (ah, the irony!). Instead, slowly pare down the activities that bring you the most anxiety and replace them with ones that soothe and relax you. Eventually, with enough hard work, you’ll find your way to a calmer, more tranquil you.