Overcoming the Effects of Stress on Health

By Ashley Ess in Healthy Feeling

Stress. We all experience it. When we're faced with a "fight or flight" situation, the stress response kicks in and releases hormones that cause us to take immediate action. It's a natural way for us to flee to safety or defend ourselves from a threat. The wrench in Mother Nature's plan, however, is that in today's society, we experience stress on myriad levels beyond what our ancient ancestors faced. The effects of stress on health have been documented by modern science, but it's possible to mitigate them through stress-relieving practices and techniques.

Understanding Your Body's Stress Response

Despite its negative connotation, stress is not always a bad thing. There are plenty of times when stress is warranted and necessary. Stress can help you get out of a dangerous situation, or push you toward something you're nervous about, like a public speech or job interview. During these moments, the brain sends messages to the adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol. This stress response, according to Harvard Medical School, gives your body the energy it needs to deal with a tense situation or experience, and then the body resumes its normal state.

woman doing yoga

The Effects of Stress on Health

Experiencing a stress response every now and then is natural and normal. But over sustained periods of time, stress can be damaging to our bodies and minds, explains the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Long-term or chronic stress floods the body with the same hormones released in the face of acute stress, yet it doesn't allow the body to return to a normal functioning level.

Over time, challenges to essential body systems can arise, interfering with the processes of your immune system, sleep cycle, cardiovascular system, and digestive system. Disturbances in these systems can cause physical symptoms like insomnia, headaches, and stomachaches. On an emotional level, you may experience sadness, anger, or irritability.

The longer the body remains in a state of stress, the greater the chance there is of developing a potentially serious condition. Chronic stress may ultimately contribute to conditions like high blood pressure, depression, anxiety, and diabetes .

Tips for Stress Management

The good news is that stress is very manageable. Simply recognizing that you are experiencing a state of stress is the first step to stress management. In order to minimize the long-term effects of stress on the body, Harvard Medical School suggests relaxation techniques like meditation and yoga, cognitive behavioral therapy to help transform negative thoughts, and goal setting.

Both the Mayo Clinic and the NIMH agree that regular exercise is important to combating stress and its effects on the body and emotions. Physical activity can improve both your health and your mood. Walking, hiking in nature, regular trips to the gym, or yoga routines are all great activities to alleviate stress. As little as thirty minutes of exercise per day can have a positive impact on your health, according to the NIMH.

Stress can also be managed by relaxation practices. Reading a light novel by the fire, getting a massage, and trying breathing exercises can all contribute to a reduction in stress levels. And lesser-known coping strategies like keeping a sense of humor and listening to music also have positive effects on managing stress, according to the Mayo Clinic. Carving out time for some good old-fashioned fun or lighthearted activity can help to neutralize a stressed-filled day.

woman meditating

Recognize When to Get Help

The NIMH recommends observing and recognizing your personal signs of stress. It's important to be mindful of how much you're taking on, so taking stock of a full plate and saving the less important tasks for later can really make a difference. Don't hesitate to reach out to family and friends for emotional support or help crossing out tasks on your to-do list.

It's important to consult a health professional if stress makes you feel overwhelmed. Always be sure to talk to your doctor or therapist if you believe you are experiencing stress symptoms. The Mayo Clinic also suggests you seek emergency help if you ever experience more advanced stress-related symptoms like chest pain, jaw or back pain, dizziness, nausea, or pain radiating into your shoulder and arm.

Everyone experiences stress, but the effects of stress on health don't have to be debilitating. Practice stress management techniques at home and ask for advice from your healthcare professional to put your mind at ease and keep your body healthy.

What are some of your favorite practices for reducing stress? Follow the Yoga and Mindfulness board by @tomsofmaine on Pinterest for some ideas!

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Why It's Good

Stress can affect anyone, and chronic stress can lead to adverse health problems. But a variety of tools and techniques can alleviate stress and prevent overwhelm.