How Stress Affects Your Health and How to Reduce Stress

Stress is something everyone experiences, often on a daily basis. It doesn’t have to be a major event like starting a new job or moving, but even driving through rush hour or deciding what to cook for dinner can stress your body. This stress has the potential to build up into chronic stress, causing certain changes or consequences in your body.  

But what actually happens when your body is under chronic stress? This article will uncover several of the common consequences of stress and symptoms your body may experience if you’re under excess stress. 1

What is Stress? 

Before we can talk about the effects of stress, we need to define it. It’s really quite simple – stress is a tension in response to a challenge. This tension can be emotional or physical. Stress is a normal emotion that is helpful when you need to focus on a work deadline or drving in traffic.  

There is acute stress which is short term and resolves within a reasonable amount of time. But there is also chronic stress, which persists over time. Things like financial worries or an unhappy partnership are examples of chronic stressors. Chronic stress can put you at risk for various health problems.  

You may be wondering what the symptoms of stress are and you may be wondering if you have any of them. It’s good to ask questions and bring awareness to how your body is feeling as these are some of the first interventions when asking how to relieve stress. 

Stress Symptoms and Health Consequences

Stress can present itself in many ways. There can be effects on your body, mood, and behavior if you’re suffering from sudden or chronic stress. Here are a few symptoms commonly seen with stress: 

  • Headache
  • Muscle pain
  • Chest pain
  • Tiredness
  • Stomach upset
  • Problems sleeping
  • Restlessness
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Over or under eating
  • Isolating yourself

You may experience many of these symptoms or just a few. Symptoms of stress can present themselves at different times, especially if you suffer from chronic stress. 

Stress symptoms are often things seemingly unrelated to mental health and you may have trouble placing the cause. These are things like elevated blood pressure or vague aches and pains that have no other obvious cause. Stress can display as other physical ailments and it’s important to be able to identify these issues and work towards managing them. 

High Blood Pressure

When you are stressed, your body secretes a few hormones in response to this stress. These hormones are released due to the biological process eliciting the ‘fight or flight’ response (think of a caveman running from a cheetah). 

Adrenaline and cortisol are the two main hormones secreted during stressful situations. They are really helpful when you do have to fight or flight because they cause your heart rate to rise and your blood vessels to constrict. But if this happens throughout the day when it’s not really necessary, say you get an unwelcome email from work on your day off or your washing machine suddenly stops working, your body still goes through the same fight or flight response with these hormones being secreted into your bloodstream. 

Although more research is needed to determine if chronic stress leads to sustained elevated blood pressure, it is well established that your body experiences these temporary jumps in blood pressure and heart rate due to stress. 

Stomach and Chest Pain

The same hormones that can cause your blood pressure to rise during a fight or flight scenario also create issues in your gut. Increases in cortisol levels can cause stomach cramping, diarrhea, constipation, and overall abdominal discomfort. 

In addition to the hormonal increase, long term stress can sensitize pain pathways and pain perception, leading to a type of pain called visceral pain. Visceral pain is often vague and difficult to pinpoint but is categorized as hypersensitivity to a stimulus. Your gastrointestinal system can be affected by visceral pain caused by stress. Having an irritable bowel, a sensitive stomach, or overall bowel discomfort, can be brought on by chronic stress exposure. 

Chest pain, or angina, is another common symptom associated with stress and anxiety. Chest pain can be caused by stress if you experience an esophageal spasm, a common cause of noncardiac chest pain. Rapid breathing during stress or anxiety can also cause chest pain.  

Hives and Rashes

As your largest organ, your skin is also affected by stress. Research has shown your skin is often an active participant and mediator of stress, and therefore is not immune to the effects of chronic stress. Cortisol, along with other stress modulators including epinephrine and norepinephrine have been proven to damage DNA and therefore contribute to skin aging by interfering with gene replication and integrity.  

In addition to aging, skin changes can occur with chronic stress, including hives and rashes. Studies have shown there is a relationship between chronic hives and chronic stress. Because of this relationship, if someone is under stress and experiencing hives or a rash – this further perpetuates stress due to the discomfort caused by the skin reaction, and therefore a vicious cycle is created. 

Another way stress affects your skin and can increase your risk for itchy skin or rashes is the way stress can reduce your skin’s natural defense as a barrier to invaders and irritants. If allergens and bacteria can more easily enter through your skin, your body elicits an exaggerated response, leading to a rash or irritation. This weakened barrier allows an increased loss of water from your skin too, drying your skin out – lowering the threshold for itching and increasing further irritant invasion.

Headaches

Stress can literally be a pain in the neck, or head. Stress has been linked to chronic headaches, with studies showing stress plays a role in triggering headaches. Stress has been linked to trigger, worsen, and create chronicity in people who suffer from severe headaches, showing a strong link between the two. 

How your Diet Affects Stress

Another way elevated cortisol levels affects your body is it can increase insulin resistance. Insulin is what breaks down sugar and regulates your blood sugar (glucose) level. If your body becomes more resistant to how insulin works, then you have a higher risk of your blood sugar levels rising and staying elevated.  

If you eat a diet high in sugar and carbohydrates, this also increases blood sugar levels and over time can make insulin less effective. This blood sugar elevation causes inflammation and stress on a cellular level – signaling your body to secrete more cortisol – creating a stress and sugar fueled cycle.

This also means diet can help manage stress. Adopting a diet that regulates blood sugar levels and creates hormonal balance can help lower stress. Following a ketogenic diet, one rich in a wide variety of fats and low in sugar, can help reduce stress. Dark green veggies, fermented foods, and even dark chocolate are all full of nutrients your body needs to create a healthy balance to tackle stress. 

Coronavirus Pandemic and Stress

The novel coronavirus and subsequent pandemic has undoubtedly increased stress in most people. According to the Centers for Disease Control, some of the stress responses associated with the pandemic include:

  • Fear and worry health, job security, and loss of support services
  • Sleep and eating pattern changes
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Worsening of existing physical and mental health conditions
  • Increased use of alcohol, tobacco, and other substances

People who work in healthcare, as caregivers, or essential workers with increased hours can be at risk for a more severe stress response. This global increase in stress and stress related crises has led to an increased need for mental health resources according to the World Health Organization. Not only is there an increase in need for mental health resources, the pandemic has caused  disruptions in access to care due to shutdowns and lack of available resources.

Psychological Stress Management: Ways to Relieve Stress

Although it may seem like stress ruins everything – thankfully there are several approaches to managing stress and therefore improving how you feel overall.  

Although easier said than done when you are under stress, getting adequate sleep can help you overcome stress. It’s recommended you get between seven and nine hours of restful sleep each night. 

There are a few ways you can increase your chances of a good night’s sleep which are part of what’s called sleep hygiene. Here are some guidelines from the National Sleep Foundation:

  • Have a schedule – go to bed and wake up at the same time every day (including weekends)
  • Create a relaxing atmosphere – turn down the lights, noise, and temperature (between 60 and 67 degrees is recommended)
  • Leave the electronics out of the bedroom – including TV, tablet, and even phone if you can stand it
  • Reduce caffeine and alcohol intake before bed
  • Exercise in the morning or early afternoon

In addition to a sleep schedule, regular exercise has been shown to reduce psychological   stress. In fact, regular exercise can increase resilience to stress, reducing the negative emotional consequences of stress. 

This doesn’t mean you have to pick up an elite sport, the American Heart Association states simply walking 150 minutes a week can help improve mood, increase energy, and improve your mental and emotional well-being. This is in addition to the many physical benefits of walking on things like your blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol. 

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction

Physical interventions like getting enough sleep, dietary changes, and regular exercise are all helpful in reducing stress. But there is substantial evidence pointing to the benefits of meditation and mindfulness practices when it comes to stress reduction and management. 

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction was developed by Dr. Jon Kabot-Zinn in the 1970s. Dr. Kabot-Zinn is a medical scientist who first used mindfulness-based stress reduction when he worked with patients in the hospital who were suffering from unmanaged pain. He structured this method around traditional Buddhist principles and applied a scientific approach to stress reduction. 

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction has since been used outside of hospitals and clinics to help thousands of people reduce stress and improve mindfulness skills. The Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program is eight weeks long, with participants meeting in person or virtually once a week to uncover new techniques to reduce stress. 

Dr. Kabot-Zinn’s approach to mindfulness is based on creating certain attitudes, which in turn help shape your intention when it comes to expectations of mindfulness training. Here are the seven foundational attitudes of mindfulness practice:

  1. Non-judging: Breaking the habit of reflexively categorizing and labeling things or experiences.
  2. Patience: Accepting that your mind has a “mind of its own” and to focus on the present moment rather than rushing for results.
  3. Beginner’s Mind: A willingness to see everything again “for the first time”.
  4. Trust: Trust yourself and honor your feelings.
  5. Non-striving: Focusing on “non-doing” AKA it’s not the destination, but the journey.
  6. Acceptance: Not resisting or denying what is currently fact in the present.
  7. Letting Go: Letting go of certain thoughts, feelings, experiences even if the mind reflexively wants to hold on.

In addition to shifting your attitude, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction also focuses on bringing a specific motivation to your practice. Dr. Kabot-Zinn mentions three additional elements to help discover your motivation: commitment, self-discipline, and intentionality. 

Does Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Work?

There have been many studies looking at the benefits of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction including stress relief, pain reduction, and relief of symptoms caused by many mental health concerns. Although most of the studies have been small in size, they do show there is promise in using Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction to relieve stress and improve symptoms of stress.  

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction has been shown to reduce pain caused by tension headaches and improve mindfulness skills. 

This program has also shown benefit with helping veterans who suffer from stress. Veterans were evaluated at baseline, two months, and six months after enrollment in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction interventions. Significant improvement in stress symptoms, acceptance, and mindfulness were observed in nearly half (47.7%) of participants.  

Another study of an eight-week mindfulness meditation program showed reduction in psychological symptoms, increase in sense of control, and higher measure of spiritual experiences. Researchers concluded mindfulness focused meditation may be a useful cognitive behavioral coping strategy and also help prevent relapse in certain mental health disorders.

Stress is a natural part of life. Working on ways to identify stressors and apply healthy stress reduction methods is often more helpful than trying to avoid stress all together. Stress comes in many forms, but thankfully there are many helpful approaches when it comes to how to deal with stress. 

Stress Summary:

  • Stress happens to all of us, with acute and chronic stress being the two common forms
  • Responses to stress include a variety of physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms
  • Stress can have health consequences including: high blood pressure, stomach and chest pain, hives and rashes, or headaches
  • Your diet can greatly affect stress and can play a role in stress management
  • The coronavirus pandemic has increased the need for stress resources and has also made it more difficult for people around the world to access help
  • Adequate sleep and regular exercise can help reduce stress
  • Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction is a proven method involving weekly sessions to bring awareness to stress, stress response, and improve mindfulness skills

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