- 1 How stress affects your health
- 2 Stress Symptoms and Stress Management
- 3 Stress Symptoms, Signs, and Causes
- 4 The Basics of Stress
How stress affects your health
Stress: We've all felt it. Sometimes stress can be a positive force, motivating you to perform well at your piano recital or job interview. But often — when you're stuck in traffic — it's a negative force. If you experience stress over a prolonged period of time, it could become chronic — unless you take action.
A natural reaction
Have you ever found yourself with sweaty hands on a first date or felt your heart pound during a scary movie? Then you know you can feel stress in both your mind and body.
This automatic response developed in our ancient ancestors as a way to protect them from predators and other threats. Faced with danger, the body kicks into gear, flooding the body with hormones that elevate your heart rate, increase your blood pressure, boost your energy and prepare you to deal with the problem.
These days, you're not ly to face the threat of being eaten.
But you probably do confront multiple challenges every day, such as meeting deadlines, paying bills and juggling childcare that make your body react the same way.
As a result, your body's natural alarm system — the “fight or flight” response — may be stuck in the on position. And that can have serious consequences for your health.
Even short-lived, minor stress can have an impact. You might get a stomach-ache before you have to give a presentation, for example. More major acute stress, whether caused by a fight with your spouse or an event an earthquake or terrorist attack, can have an even bigger impact.
Multiple studies have shown that these sudden emotional stresses — especially anger — can trigger heart attacks, arrhythmias and even sudden death.1 Although this happens mostly in people who already have heart disease, some people don't know they have a problem until acute stress causes a heart attack or something worse.
When stress starts interfering with your ability to live a normal life for an extended period, it becomes even more dangerous. The longer the stress lasts, the worse it is for both your mind and body. You might feel fatigued, unable to concentrate or irritable for no good reason, for example. But chronic stress causes wear and tear on your body, too.
Stress can make existing problems worse.2 In one study, for example, about half the participants saw improvements in chronic headaches after learning how to stop the stress-producing habit of “catastrophizing,” or constantly thinking negative thoughts about their pain.
3 Chronic stress may also cause disease, either because of changes in your body or the overeating, smoking and other bad habits people use to cope with stress. Job strain — high demands coupled with low decision-making latitude — is associated with increased risk of coronary disease, for example.
4 Other forms of chronic stress, such as depression and low levels of social support, have also been implicated in increased cardiovascular risk. And once you're sick, stress can also make it harder to recover.
One analysis of past studies, for instance, suggests that cardiac patients with so-called “Type D” personalities — characterized by chronic distress — face higher risks of bad outcomes.5
What you can do
Reducing your stress levels can not only make you feel better right now, but may also protect your health long-term.
In one study, researchers examined the association between “positive affect” — feelings happiness, joy, contentment and enthusiasm — and the development of coronary heart disease over a decade.6 They found that for every one-point increase in positive affect on a five-point scale, the rate of heart disease dropped by 22 percent.
While the study doesn't prove that increasing positive affect decreases cardiovascular risks, the researchers recommend boosting your positive affect by making a little time for enjoyable activities every day.
Other strategies for reducing stress include:
- Identify what's causing stress. Monitor your state of mind throughout the day. If you feel stressed, write down the cause, your thoughts and your mood. Once you know what's bothering you, develop a plan for addressing it. That might mean setting more reasonable expectations for yourself and others or asking for help with household responsibilities, job assignments or other tasks. List all your commitments, assess your priorities and then eliminate any tasks that are not absolutely essential.
- Build strong relationships. Relationships can be a source of stress. Research has found that negative, hostile reactions with your spouse cause immediate changes in stress-sensitive hormones, for example.7 But relationships can also serve as stress buffers. Reach out to family members or close friends and let them know you're having a tough time. They may be able to offer practical assistance and support, useful ideas or just a fresh perspective as you begin to tackle whatever's causing your stress.
- Walk away when you're angry. Before you react, take time to regroup by counting to 10. Then reconsider. Walking or other physical activities can also help you work off steam. Plus, exercise increases the production of endorphins, your body's natural mood-booster. Commit to a daily walk or other form of exercise — a small step that can make a big difference in reducing stress levels.
- Rest your mind. According to APA's 2012 Stress in America survey, stress keeps more than 40 percent of adults lying awake at night. To help ensure you get the recommended seven or eight hours of shut-eye, cut back on caffeine, remove distractions such as television or computers from your bedroom and go to bed at the same time each night. Research shows that activities yoga and relaxation exercises not only help reduce stress, but also boost immune functioning.8
- Get help. If you continue to feel overwhelmed, consult with a psychologist or other licensed mental health professional who can help you learn how to manage stress effectively. He or she can help you identify situations or behaviors that contribute to your chronic stress and then develop an action plan for changing them.
1 Krantz, D.S., Whittaker, K.S. & Sheps, D.S. (2011). “Psychosocial risk factors for coronary artery disease: Pathophysiologic mechanisms.” In Heart and Mind: Evolution of Cardiac Psychology . Washington, DC: APA.
2 Kiecolt-Glaser, J. & Glaser, R.
3 Thorn, B.E., Pence, L.B., et al. (2007). “A randomized clinical trial of targeted cognitive behavioral treatment to reduce catastrophizing in chronic headache sufferers.” Journal of Pain 8 , 938-949.
4 Krantz, D.S. & McCeney, M.K. (2002). “Effects of psychological and social factors on organic disease: A critical assessment of research on coronary heart disease.” Annual Review of Psychology, 53 , 341-369.
5 Denollet, J., et al. (2010). “A general propensity to psychological distress affects cardiovascular outcomes: Evidence from research on the type D (distressed) personality profile.” Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, 3, 546-557.
6 Davidson, K.W., Mostofsky, E. & Whang, W. (2010). “Don't worry, by happy: Positive affect and reduced 10-year incident coronary heart disease: The Canadian Nova Scotia Health Survey.” European Heart Journal, 31 , 1065-1070.
7 Kiecolt-Glaser, J. & Glaser, R.
8 Kiecolt-Glaser, J. & Glaser, R.
Stress Symptoms and Stress Management
Uncontrollable, unpredictable, and constant stress has far-reaching consequences on our physical and mental health. Stress can begin in the womb and recur throughout life.
One of the potential pathological (abnormal) consequences of stress is a learned helplessness that leads to the hopelessness and helplessness of clinical depression, but in addition, many illnesses, such as chronic anxiety states, high blood pressure, heart disease, and addictive disorders, to name a few, also seem to be influenced by chronic or overwhelming stress.
Nature, however, has provided us with efficient processes (mechanisms) to cope with stressors through the HPA axis and the locus coeruleus/sympathetic nervous system.
Furthermore, research has shown us the biological processes that explain what we all intuitively know is true — which is, that too much stress, particularly when we cannot predict it or control its recurrence, is harmful to our health.
What can people do for stress management? What are home remedies to combat stress symptoms?
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If we think about the causes of stress, the nature of the stress response, and the negative effects of some types of stress (prolonged, unexpected, or unmanageable stress), several healthy management strategies and home remedies to combat the effects of stress become clear.
An important step in stress management and treatment of stress-related symptoms is exercise. Since the stress response prepares us to fight or flee, our bodies are primed for action.
Unfortunately, however, we usually handle our stresses while sitting at our desk, standing at the watercooler, or behind the wheel stuck in traffic. Exercise on a regular basis helps to turn down the production of stress hormones and associated neurochemicals.
Thus, exercise can help avoid the damage to our health that prolonged stress can cause. In fact, studies have found that exercise is a potent antidepressant, anxiolytic (combats anxiety), and sleeping aid for many people.
For centuries in Eastern religious traditions, the benefits of meditation and other relaxation techniques have been well known.
Now, Western medicine and psychology have rediscovered that particular wisdom, translated it into simple nonspiritual methods, and scientifically verified its effectiveness.
Thus, one or two 20-30 minute meditation sessions a day can have lasting beneficial effects on health. Indeed, advanced meditators can even significantly control their blood pressure and heart rate as well.
Elimination of drug abuse (both illegal drugs and prescription medications have the potential for abuse) and no more than moderate alcohol use are important for the successful management of stress.
We know that people, when stressed, seek these outlets, but we also know that many of these substances sensitize (make even more responsive) the stress response. As a result, small problems produce big surges of stress chemicals.
What's more, these attempts with drugs and alcohol to mask stress often prevent the person from facing the problem directly. Consequently, they are not able to develop effective ways to cope with or eliminate the stress.
In fact, even prescription drugs for treatment of anxiety, such as diazepam (Valium), lorazepam (Ativan), clonazepam (Klonopin), or alprazolam (Xanax), can be counterproductive in the same way. Therefore, these medications should only be used cautiously under the strict guidance of a physician.
If, however, stress produces a full-blown psychiatric problem, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), clinical depression, or anxiety disorders, then psychotropic medications, particularly the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), are extremely useful.
Examples of SSRIs include sertraline (Zoloft), paroxetine (Paxil), fluoxetine (Prozac), citalopram (Celexa), and escitalopram (Lexapro).
We know that chronic or uninterrupted stress is very harmful. It is important, therefore, to take breaks and decompress. Take a lunch break and don't talk about work. Take a walk instead of a coffee break.
Use weekends to relax, and don't schedule so many events that Monday morning will seem a relief. Learn to recognize and respond to your stress signals.
Take regular vacations or even long weekends or mental-health days at regular intervals.
Create predictability in one's work and home life as much as possible. Structure and routine in one's life can't prevent the unexpected from happening. However, they can provide a comfortable framework from which to respond to the unexpected.
Think ahead and try to anticipate the varieties of possibilities, good and bad, that may become realities at work or home. Generate scenarios and response plans. One might find that the “unexpected” really doesn't always come the blue.
With this kind of preparation, it's possible to turn stress into a positive force to work for growth and change.
For those who may need help dealing with stress, stress-management counseling in the form of individual or group therapy is offered by various mental-health-care providers. Stress counseling and group discussion therapy have proven to reduce stress symptoms and improve overall health and attitude.
Stress Symptoms, Signs, and Causes
Stress is your body’s way of responding to any kind of demand or threat. When you sense danger—whether it’s real or imagined—the body's defenses kick into high gear in a rapid, automatic process known as the “fight-or-flight” reaction or the “stress response.”
The stress response is the body’s way of protecting you. When working properly, it helps you stay focused, energetic, and alert. In emergency situations, stress can save your life—giving you extra strength to defend yourself, for example, or spurring you to slam on the brakes to avoid an accident.
Stress can also help you rise to meet challenges.
It’s what keeps you on your toes during a presentation at work, sharpens your concentration when you’re attempting the game-winning free throw, or drives you to study for an exam when you'd rather be watching TV.
But beyond a certain point, stress stops being helpful and starts causing major damage to your health, your mood, your productivity, your relationships, and your quality of life.
The effects of chronic stress
Your nervous system isn’t very good at distinguishing between emotional and physical threats.
If you’re super stressed over an argument with a friend, a work deadline, or a mountain of bills, your body can react just as strongly as if you’re facing a true life-or-death situation.
And the more your emergency stress system is activated, the easier it becomes to trigger and the harder it becomes to shut off.
If you tend to get stressed out frequently—as many of us do in today’s demanding world—your body may be in a heightened state of stress most of the time. And that can lead to serious health problems. Chronic stress disrupts nearly every system in your body.
It can suppress your immune system, upset your digestive and reproductive systems, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, and speed up the aging process.
It can even rewire the brain, leaving you more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems.
Health problems caused or exacerbated by stress include:
- Skin conditions, such as eczema
- Heart disease
- Weight problems
- Reproductive issues
- Thinking and memory problems
Signs and symptoms of stress overload
The most dangerous thing about stress is how easily it can creep up on you. You get used to it. It starts to feel familiar — even normal. You don’t notice how much it’s affecting you, even as it takes a heavy toll. That’s why it’s important to be aware of the common warning signs and symptoms of stress overload.
- Memory problems
- Inability to concentrate
- Poor judgment
- Seeing only the negative
- Anxious or racing thoughts
- Constant worrying
- Depression or general unhappiness
- Anxiety and agitation
- Moodiness, irritability, or anger
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Loneliness and isolation
- Other mental or emotional health problems
- Aches and pains
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Nausea, dizziness
- Chest pain, rapid heart rate
- Loss of sex drive
- Frequent colds or flu
- Eating more or less
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Withdrawing from others
- Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
- Using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax
- Nervous habits (e.g. nail biting, pacing)
Causes of stress
The situations and pressures that cause stress are known as stressors. We usually think of stressors as being negative, such as an exhausting work schedule or a rocky relationship. However, anything that puts high demands on you can be stressful. This includes positive events such as getting married, buying a house, going to college, or receiving a promotion.
Of course, not all stress is caused by external factors. Stress can also be internal or self-generated, when you worry excessively about something that may or may not happen, or have irrational, pessimistic thoughts about life.
Finally, what causes stress depends, at least in part, on your perception of it. Something that's stressful to you may not faze someone else; they may even enjoy it.
While some of us are terrified of getting up in front of people to perform or speak, for example, others live for the spotlight. Where one person thrives under pressure and performs best in the face of a tight deadline, another will shut down when work demands escalate.
And while you may enjoy helping care for your elderly parents, your siblings may find the demands of caretaking overwhelming stressful.
Common external causes of stress include:
- Major life changes
- Work or school
- Relationship difficulties
- Financial problems
- Being too busy
- Children and family
Common internal causes of stress include:
- Inability to accept uncertainty
- Rigid thinking, lack of flexibility
- Negative self-talk
- Unrealistic expectations / perfectionism
- All-or-nothing attitude
What's stressful for you?
Whatever event or situation is stressing you out, there are ways of coping with the problem and regaining your balance. Some of life's most common sources of stress include:
Stress at work
While some workplace stress is normal, excessive stress can interfere with your productivity and performance, impact your physical and emotional health, and affect your relationships and home life.
It can even mean the difference between success and failure on the job.
Whatever your ambitions or work demands, there are steps you can take to protect yourself from the damaging effects of stress, improve your job satisfaction, and bolster your well-being in and the workplace.
Job loss and unemployment stress
Losing a job is one of life's most stressful experiences. It's normal to feel angry, hurt, or depressed, grieve at all that you've lost, or feel anxious about what the future holds.
Job loss and unemployment involves a lot of change all at once, which can rock your sense of purpose and self-esteem.
While the stress can seem overwhelming, there are many things you can do to come this difficult period stronger, more resilient, and with a renewed sense of purpose.
The demands of caregiving can be overwhelming, especially if you feel you're in over your head or have little control over the situation.
If the stress of caregiving is left unchecked, it can take a toll on your health, relationships, and state of mind — eventually leading to burnout.
However, there are plenty of things you can do to rein in the stress of caregiving and regain a sense of balance, joy, and hope in your life.
Grief and loss
Coping with the loss of someone or something you love is one of life's biggest stressors. Often, the pain and stress of loss can feel overwhelming.
You may experience all kinds of difficult and unexpected emotions, from shock or anger to disbelief, guilt, and profound sadness.
While there is no right or wrong way to grieve, there are healthy ways to cope with the pain that, in time, can ease your sadness and help you come to terms with your loss, find new meaning, and move on with your life.
How much stress is too much?
Because of the widespread damage stress can cause, it’s important to know your own limit. But just how much stress is “too much” differs from person to person. Some people seem to be able to roll with life’s punches, while others tend to crumble in the face of small obstacles or frustrations. Some people even thrive on the excitement of a high-stress lifestyle.
Factors that influence your stress tolerance level include:
Your support network. A strong network of supportive friends and family members is an enormous buffer against stress. When you have people you can count on, life’s pressures don’t seem as overwhelming. On the flip side, the lonelier and more isolated you are, the greater your risk of succumbing to stress.
Your sense of control. If you have confidence in yourself and your ability to influence events and persevere through challenges, it’s easier to take stress in stride.
On the other hand, if you believe that you have little control over your life—that you’re at the mercy of your environment and circumstances, with limited ability to make changes—stress is more ly to knock you off course.
Your attitude and outlook. The way you look at life and its inevitable challenges makes a huge difference in your ability to handle stress. If you’re generally hopeful and optimistic, you’ll be less vulnerable. Stress-hardy people tend to embrace challenges, have a stronger sense of humor, believe in a higher purpose, and accept change as an inevitable part of life.
Your ability to deal with your emotions. If you don’t know how to calm and soothe yourself when you’re feeling sad, angry, or troubled, you’re more ly to become stressed and agitated. Having the ability toidentify and deal appropriately with your emotions can increase your tolerance to stress and help you bounce back from adversity.
Your knowledge and preparation. The more you know about a stressful situation—including how long it will last and what to expect—the easier it is to cope. For example, if you go into surgery with a realistic picture of what to expect post-op, a painful recovery will be less stressful than if you were expecting to bounce back immediately.
Improving your ability to handle stress
Get moving. Upping your activity level is something you can do right now to help relieve stress and start to feel better.
Regular exercise can lift your mood and serve as a distraction from worries, allowing you to break the cycle of negative thoughts that feed stress.
Rhythmic exercises such as walking, running, swimming, and dancing are particularly effective, especially if you exercise mindfully (focusing your attention on the physical sensations you experience as you move).
Connect to others. The simple act of talking face-to-face with another human can trigger hormones that relieve stress when you're feeling agitated or insecure.
Even just a brief exchange of kind words or a friendly look from another human being can help calm and soothe your nervous system. So, spend time with people who make you feel good and don’t let your responsibilities keep you from having a social life.
If you don’t have any close relationships, or your relationships are the source of your stress, make it a priority to build stronger and more satisfying connections.
Engage your senses. Another fast way to relieve stress is by engaging one or more of your senses—sight, sound, taste, smell, touch, or movement. The key is to find the sensory input that works for you.
Does listening to an uplifting song make you feel calm? Or smelling ground coffee? Or maybe petting an animal works quickly to make you feel centered? Everyone responds to sensory input a little differently, so experiment to find what works best for you.
Learn to relax. You can’t completely eliminate stress from your life, but you can control how much it affects you.
Relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, and deep breathing activate the body’s relaxation response, a state of restfulness that is the polar opposite of the stress response.
When practiced regularly, these activities can reduce your everyday stress levels and boost feelings of joy and serenity. They also increase your ability to stay calm and collected under pressure.
Eat a healthy diet. The food you eat can improve or worsen your mood and affect your ability to cope with life’s stressors.
Eating a diet full of processed and convenience food, refined carbohydrates, and sugary snacks can worsen symptoms of stress while eating a diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables, high-quality protein, and omega-3 fatty acids, can help you better cope with life’s ups and downs.
Get your rest. Feeling tired can increase stress by causing you to think irrationally. At the same time, chronic stress can disrupt your sleep. Whether you’re having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep at night, there are plenty of ways to improve your sleep so you feel less stressed and more productive and emotionally balanced.
The Basics of Stress
Stress is a situation that triggers a particular biological response. When you perceive a threat or a major challenge, chemicals and hormones surge throughout your body.
Stress triggers your fight-or-flight response in order to fight the stressor or run away from it. Typically, after the response occurs, your body should relax. Too much constant stress can have negative effects on your long-term health.
Is all stress bad?
Stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s what helped our hunter-gatherer ancestors survive, and it’s just as important in today’s world. It can be healthy when it helps you avoid an accident, meet a tight deadline, or keep your wits about you amid chaos.
We all feel stressed at times, but what one person finds stressful may be very different from what another finds stressful. An example of this would be public speaking. Some love the thrill of it and others become paralyzed at the very thought.
Stress isn’t always a bad thing, either. Your wedding day, for example, may be considered a good form of stress.
But stress should be temporary. Once you’ve passed the fight-or-flight moment, your heart rate and breathing should slow down and your muscles should relax. In a short time, your body should return to its natural state without any lasting negative effects.
On the other hand, severe, frequent, or prolonged stress can be mentally and physically harmful.
And it’s fairly common. When asked, 80 percent of Americans reported they’d had at least one symptom of stress in the past month. Twenty percent reported being under extreme stress.
Life being what it is, it’s not possible to eliminate stress completely. But we can learn to avoid it when possible and manage it when it’s unavoidable.
Stress is a normal biological reaction to a potentially dangerous situation. When you encounter sudden stress, your brain floods your body with chemicals and hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol.
That gets your heart beating faster and sends blood to muscles and important organs. You feel energized and have heightened awareness so you can focus on your immediate needs. These are the different stages of stress and how people adapt.
When you sense danger, the hypothalamus at the base of your brain reacts. It sends nerve and hormone signals to your adrenal glands, which release an abundance of hormones.
These hormones are nature’s way of preparing you to face danger and increase your chances of survival.
One of these hormones is adrenaline. You might also know it as epinephrine, or the fight-or-flight hormone. In rapid fashion, adrenaline works to:
- increase your heartbeat
- increase your breathing rate
- make it easier for your muscles to use glucose
- contract blood vessels so blood is directed to the muscles
- stimulate perspiration
- inhibit insulin production
While this is helpful in the moment, frequent adrenaline surges can lead to:
Here’s what else you should know about an adrenaline rush.
Although adrenaline is important, it isn’t the primary stress hormone. That’s cortisol.
As the main stress hormone, cortisol plays an essential role in stressful situations. Among its functions are:
- raising the amount of glucose in your bloodstream
- helping the brain use glucose more effectively
- raising the accessibility of substances that help with tissue repair
- restraining functions that are nonessential in a life-threatening situation
- altering immune system response
- dampening the reproductive system and growth process
- affecting parts of the brain that control fear, motivation, and mood
All this helps you deal more effectively with a high-stress situation. It’s a normal process and crucial to human survival.
But if your cortisol levels stay high for too long, it has a negative impact on your health. It can contribute to:
It can also have a negative impact on your mood. You can lower your cortisol levels naturally: Here’s how.
There are several types of stress, including:
- acute stress
- episodic acute stress
- chronic stress
Acute stress happens to everyone. It’s the body’s immediate reaction to a new and challenging situation. It’s the kind of stress you might feel when you narrowly escape a car accident.
Acute stress can also come something that you actually enjoy. It’s the somewhat-frightening, yet thrilling feeling you get on a roller coaster or when skiing down a steep mountain slope.
These incidents of acute stress don’t normally do you any harm. They might even be good for you. Stressful situations give your body and brain practice in developing the best response to future stressful situations.
Once the danger passes, your body systems should return to normal.
Severe acute stress is a different story. This kind of stress, such as when you’ve faced a life-threatening situation, can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other mental health problems.
Episodic acute stress
Episodic acute stress is when you have frequent episodes of acute stress.
This might happen if you’re often anxious and worried about things you suspect may happen. You might feel that your life is chaotic and you seemingly go from one crisis to the next.
Certain professions, such as law enforcement or firefighters, might also lead to frequent high-stress situations.
As with severe acute stress, episodic acute stress can affect your physical health and mental well-being.