Stress taps into the human body’s age-old coping mechanisms for dealing with external threats. A little bit of it can help you rise to a challenge or cope with an emergency – but like just about everything else in life, too much of it isn’t good for you.
Fight or flight
When you’re confronted with a situation that looks threatening, your body cranks into overdrive with a jolt of neurotransmitters, the chemicals that send signals among your nerve cells. These hormones, including adrenaline and serotonin, trigger increased heart rate, faster breathing, higher blood pressure and tightened muscles. It’s all part of the body’s instinctive preparation either to fight a sudden enemy or flee from an overwhelming predator.
That response can save you from many an accident, but when the threat isn’t real and the reaction to it persists, its long-term effects can stress your health, both physical and mental.
What stress does to your emotions
Long-term stress can leave people feeling agitation and frustration, with a need for control or a fear of the loss of it. Relaxation becomes all but impossible, and self esteem suffers. Feelings of worthlessness and isolation can lead to avoidance of other people. Irritation, restlessness, and the inability to focus or get motivated all combine to sap productivity and lead to a lack of energy.
How stress affects your physical health
Chronic stress can cause everything from back pain to skin breakouts. The muscle tension involved in the fight-or-flight response can yield headaches and digestive upsets, trigger asthma attacks and worsen other breathing problems, overwork the heart, produce hypertension, cause inflammation, and increase immune-system activity that can lead to other conditions such as depression.
Among the chemicals released in the body in response to a perceived or real threat, stress hormones affect parts of the brain involved in regulating emotions and maintaining memory. Chronic stress can trigger changes in the nerve cells of the brain and the connections between them, producing the likelihood of depression and other forms of mental illness.
What to do about stress
Many forms of stress begin as responses to changes in life that appear threatening to your income, family, or way of life. Worries about school or work, sudden losses of a job or relationship, a potentially life-threatening medical diagnosis, or a local or global threat such as a natural disaster or war: All these situations and others like them can trigger stress because of the loss of quality of life or way of living, especially because many of them appear to be entirely out of your control.
To cope, you need a full awareness of what’s actually happening in your life.
- Track the physical effects of stress, such as insomnia, increased consumption of alcohol and tobacco or other substances, weight gain from stress eating, lack of energy, sadness, and other symptoms.
- Take action to feel better, starting with a frank conversation with your health-care provider about ways to address the emotional and the physical effects of stress.
- Get moving. Regular exercise does wonders for your mood and your overall health.
- Look for a relaxation program with meditation, breathing exercises, visualizations, or other physical relaxation techniques.
- Fight the urge to isolate yourself. Whether you stay in touch with supportive members of your family, circle of friends, and community by phone or in person, remember that you don’t have to go through stressful experiences alone.
- Play with your pets – or consider adopting a pet if you don’t have one. Pets offer unconditional affection that can go a long way toward helping you feel better – and the ongoing act of taking care of another living creature adds purposefulness to life.
- Immerse yourself in a good book, great music, or a hobby, but avoid passive pursuits such as binge-watching TV shows, wearing out your game controller, or staying permanently logged in to social media. These things feel as if they help relieve stress, but – like anything that’s a distraction instead of a cure – in the long run, they can make you feel even worse.
Don’t ignore emergencies
Seek help immediately if your stress reaches the point at which you feel the symptoms of a heart attack, including pain in your chest, jaw, or back, especially if it radiates into your shoulder and arm; shortness of breath; nausea; dizziness; and sweating.
However you address your stress, don’t leave it unchecked to create long-term toxic effects. Help is out there waiting for you.