Do you often feel stressed out? Do you have things in your life that frequently cause you stress? Do you just feel burned out? If you do, you are truly not alone. In this article, I will talk about the effects of stress on your body and your health—both the immediate effects and the long term damage—and then introduce the most fundamental aspect of stress management: identifying causes of stress and unhealthy coping mechanisms. In subsequent articles, I discuss stress management techniques that have been proven to work in both lowering stress and decreasing the harmful effects of it on your health.
Effects of Stress on the Body and Health
Your Body’s Response to Short-Term Stress
It is no secret that stress is a part of human life. As we all have experienced at one time or another, stress—in small doses—can be extremely helpful…such as when we need to prepare for an upcoming exam or a work deadline. This is because when we are faced with a stressful situation, our body’s “alarm system” goes off, causing stress hormones—one of which is adrenaline— to be released. The immediate, short term effects you feel when you are suddenly stressed are the result of adrenaline’s effects on your body, which primarily works to prepare you to think and act quickly.
This physiologic response–termed the “Fight or Flight” response—when only turned on for short periods of time, can be extremely beneficial and even lifesaving (imagine being chased by a bear). Under normal circumstances, once this short-term stress is gone, your body’s alarm system shuts off, and you are then able to go back into your normal calm and relaxed state.
The Harmful Health Effects of Chronic Stress
But what happens when you feel stressed out…all the time? Perhaps you have a stressful job with little down time, or you have personal worries that follow you wherever you go. In that case, your body simply cannot shut that stress alarm off. Indeed, when a person is constantly in a stressed state–either because of environmental circumstances (eg., a stressful job) or a physical illness (eg., anxiety or chronic pain)–your body believes it needs to remain in a constant state of high alert, as a result flooding it with persistently high levels of stress hormones. In addition to adrenaline, the other very important stress hormone is called cortisol. Over time, high levels of cortisol wear down your body, worsening the chronic conditions you may already have and causing a number of other health problems. The diagram here gives you an idea of the many harmful health effects of high cortisol.
In other words, chronic stress can affect your health in the following ways:
➢ Increase your level of tiredness and fatigue
➢ Raise your blood pressure (which can gives you headaches and lead to heart and kidney problems in the long run)
➢ Worsen existing depression or increase your risk of developing it
➢ Worsen chronic pain symptoms and increase your overall sensitivity to pain
➢ Cause migraines
➢ Cause or worsen acid reflux (heartburn) and stomach ulcers
➢ Weaken your immune system
➢ Alter your metabolism (making it harder to lose weight)
As you can see, the amount of stress that your body perceives plays a huge role when it comes to both your physical and emotional health. And while it is not always possible to control the sources of your stress, you can control the way your mind and body react to it. This is where effective Stress Management comes in. By equipping you with practical Stress Management tools, you will be able to not only better control the level of stress in your life, but even more importantly, be prepared to handle any stressful events you may encounter…easily and effectively.
Stress Management: An Introduction
Identifying the Causes of Stress
Everybody’s life is different, and each person has his or her own unique stressors (things that cause stress). Sometimes the stressors are obvious—such as a new job, financial hardship, or taking care of a sick loved one. Other times, the sources of stress are less obvious, such as having to cook, clean, or mow the lawn—routine tasks that take up time and energy. Thus, the first step to effectively controlling your stress is to know exactly what is causing it. One of the best ways to do this is to start a Stress Journal.
The purpose of a Stress Journal is to help you identify the specific stressors in your life as well as the ways you deal with them. Each time you feel stressed, write it down in your journal. As you keep a daily log, try to find patterns and common themes.
4 Things to write down in a Stress Journal :
1 – Date and time it occurred (you’ll often find a pattern)
2 – What caused your stress? (make a guess if you’re unsure)
3 – How did it make you feel? (both physically and emotionally)
4 – How did you cope with it? (What you did to make yourself feel better)
Identifying Unhealthy Coping Strategies
Now, looking over your Stress Journal, try to identify things that you did that would be considered unhealthy coping strategies. Unhealthy coping strategies are activities that may help you feel better temporarily, but that either does not effectively deal with the source of stress or that harm your health in the long run.
ASK YOURSELF: Do any of these unhealthy coping strategies apply to you?
⊗ Binging on junk or comfort food
⊗ Zoning out for hours looking at your phone
⊗ Using pills or drugs to relax
⊗ Drinking too much
⊗ Withdrawing from friends, family, and activities
⊗ Filling up every minute of the day to avoid facing problems
⊗ Sleeping too much
⊗ Taking out your stress on others
Are you guilty of some of the above? If you are, rest assured–you are not alone. Even if you find that your methods of coping with stress aren’t contributing to your greater emotional and physical health, you have already taken the first step in identifying them.
But where do you go from here? In the next article, I will start equipping you with essential tools that will empower you to take control of your stress.
*The information presented in “Effects of Stress on Your Body & Health: What to Know” can be found in Being Empowered for a Healthy Heart: A personal guide to taking control of your health while living with chronic conditions, by Phoebe Chi, MD, MPH.