How Stress Affects Your Health
Modern life is full of stress, but so was life in the past. We may worry about whether we’ll lose our jobs or why our child isn’t doing well in school, but centuries ago people worried whether the crops would fail or how many of their children would die before reaching adulthood. They didn’t know about the health effects of stress, which is one reason they died younger than we do. Fortunately, we can take measures to mitigate the stress we experience in our lives.
The key to surviving and even thriving despite stress is learning to effectively cope with it. Your primary care doctors at Cohen Medical Associates in Delray Beach, want to explore the various ways stress affects your body, and to offer steps you can take to alleviate it.
Although just hearing the word “stress” can make you a bit stressed, all stress isn’t bad. Dr. Hans Selye in 1936 distinguished between “eustress” or good stress, and “distress,” or bad stress. Eustress might be the kind you experience on a roller coaster or running a marathon or accepting an Academy Award. Distress is that which causes you anger, or anxiety, or sleepless nights.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) similarly reminds us that not all stress is bad. It can motivate people to prepare for an exam or an interview or to fight or flee a life-threatening situation.
In the case of either eustress or distress, the physical reactions are largely the same: quickened heart rate, tense muscles, increased respiration and heightened reaction time. This is due to the release of the hormone cortisol, which prepares the body for the fight-or-flight response.
Nature evolved this mechanism to keep us and our species alive, but when the stress becomes chronic, it can take a toll on our health, and eventually even kill us. It can lead to such mental issues as anxiety, depression, and decreased resilience, as well as suppressing thyroid function, triggering skin and digestive problems, chest pains, fatigue, and headaches, and contributing to insomnia and lowered libido.
Cases of prolonged stress have been implicated in high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, even cancer. That’s why it’s critical to learn ways of coping with the three main types of stress: routine (daily stress related to work, school, community, and family problems); sudden (loss of job, divorce, acute illness); or, traumatic (war, natural disaster, assault, death of family member or close friend).
Here are some effective ways to cope with all of the types of stress you may encounter.
Any type of vigorous or controlled movement will, in essence, give the cortisol someplace to go, instead of simply coursing through your body creating havoc. Tennis, bike riding, swimming, jogging, even a quick walk around the block will help relieve stress. For all three types of stress, regular exercise will have a major impact on your body’s health and your mind’s well-being.
2. Relaxation techniques
Anything that helps muscles relieve tension will help alleviate stress. Deep breathing techniques, such as those taught in disciplines like yoga, along with meditation-type practices that train your mind to disengage from daily stresses, will have a positive effect. People of any age can perform the slow, flowing movements of qigong or tai chi—91-year-old Rosalynn Carter practices the latter daily.
It’s important to incorporate regular “down time” into your daily schedule, whether that means playing with your children, reading a book, or engaging in a hobby; anything that offers a temporary respite from your worries will allow your cortisol levels to drop and your body’s stress levels to return to normal.
4. Eat well
If your body is already stressed from excess cortisol, it doesn’t need the additional stress of processed foods, sugar, starches, and fat. Do it a favor and offer it lean proteins, vegetables, nuts, and fruits.
Too much sleep can be as harmful as too little, so aim for regular bedtimes even on the weekend, and try to average seven to nine hours’ sleep every night. Turn off electronic devices one or two hours before bedtime, and restrict activity in the bed solely to sex and sleep.
If despite these tips you still feel chronically stressed, please talk to us. We can suggest other strategies that can help, as well as investigate any hidden health issues that may be causing or contributing to your stress.