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Stress oftentimes gets a bad rap and is usually viewed as something to be avoided. In fact, an appropriate and balanced amount of stress can benefit one’s performance by increasing motivation, focus, and attention.
However, if left unattended, stress could also become overwhelming, resulting in counterproductivity and even detrimental effects on one’s overall physical and mental health.
The good news is that there are several practical and simple ways to identify and address the symptoms of stress, which could help lift the burdens of daily living and facilitate a happier, healthier, and more fulfilling life.
Let’s take a look at how stress works, the harmful effects of stress that may interfere with your physical and mental health, and ways to combat them.
The term “stress” is often used interchangeably with “anxiety.” However, stress is more of a feeling, and anxiety is more of a state of mind that involves the fear or anticipation of a threat. (1)
Anxious arousal activates the fight or flight response, which in turn activates stress hormones. Low levels of stress are a healthy reaction to threatening or demanding events and can actually motivate a person into productive action.
If, however, the stress hormones are not used productively in the body’s defense, they are turned inward. Unused energy trapped in the body can lead to crippling anxiety, which can interfere with daily living and interpersonal relationships.
Stress and irritability tend to go hand in hand. The more overwhelming stress becomes, the less likely the rational part of the brain overrides the emotional part of the brain, thereby creating a sense of being “out of control” of one’s emotional reactions.
Stress hormones, particularly adrenaline, are commonly known to provide incredible strength and endurance when confronted with a threat.
If the rational brain is no longer able to distinguish between real and imagined distress, even benign interactions may be viewed as threatening. This could trigger “uncontrollable” adrenaline-filled emotional reactions, such as extreme irritability or unchecked anger. Such emotional outbursts are likely followed by problems in other major areas, such as social relationships and occupational functioning.
Stress, particularly when it is long term, can monopolize one’s attention, leaving no time to look around and enjoy the surroundings.
In addition, rumination – the persistent and repetitive focus on one event or circumstance – often occurs, which “traps” a person’s thoughts in the current distress or unfortunate circumstances.
Depression and immobilization tend to be the result, along with subsequent dysfunction, such as diminished work quality, burnout, withdrawal from family and friends, decreased sexual desire, and shutting down.
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Stress usually takes up a remarkable amount of space in the brain, leaving little room (and energy) for extra storage. This might manifest in mild absentmindedness to more significant lapses in memory.
Again, this is related to the level of stress hormones in the body. Moderate levels of stress can enhance memory. However, high levels of stress impair memory.
Research suggests that severe stress over a long time can increase the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. (2)
5. Cardiovascular Problems
Stress directly affects the heart. Stress hormones, especially cortisol, increase the levels of blood sugar, cholesterol, and a special kind of fat that increases the risk of heart disease.
Also, preexisting heart conditions are especially exacerbated by stress, which could lead to high blood pressure and, in some cases, heart attacks. Therefore, stress management is an extremely important component in maintaining a healthy heart.
6. Immune Deficiency
The immune system is dedicated to the body’s defense against illness. When under stress, the cells responsible for maintaining the immune system are reduced, which increases vulnerability to illness.
In addition, stress hormones are released to protect the body. They immediately activate the body’s muscular and emotional resources to resolve the distressing event to return the body to equilibrium quickly.
When extreme levels of stress are unresolved or maintained for some time, the stress hormones steadily continue sending messages to the body to defend itself. This prolonged increase in arousal takes a toll on the internal organs and is eventually expressed as a physical illness.
7. Muscle Tension
As previously mentioned, severe stress will send signals to the body that something is amiss. Stress hormones are released, and they communicate to the muscles telling them to tense up in preparation for fighting off the stressor.
When the body does not respond to the impulse to activate, the energy is stored in the muscles, causing aches and pains.
Headaches are a common complaint of stress. While the actual reason for their connection is still under debate, it makes sense that increased blood flow to the brain could trigger the same changes that cause migraine headaches.
Also, similar to muscle tension, a buildup of stress and energy from unresolved stress could trigger a headache. Until you are able to deal with the agent of concern appropriately, stress hormones will continue to fuel the headaches and other physical and mental ailments.
9. Weight Gain
Weight gain commonly accompanies long-term stress. Food is sometimes used as a source of comfort, which can have rewarding psychological effects for some individuals.
The stress hormone, cortisol, is primarily stored in the abdomen. When stress is only short-term, cortisol is more likely to cause stomach issues, such as diarrhea and vomiting. However, in the case of long-term stress, cortisol builds up and accumulates in the abdomen, causing weight gain. (3)
A healthy diet, along with regularly scheduled physical activity, can alleviate stress and combat this additional health risk.
Insomnia is defined as an inability to obtain satisfactory sleep, which causes distress in daily functioning. Severe stress can both contribute to, and result from, insomnia.
The typical characteristics of stress, such as racing thoughts, hyperarousal, and ruminations, can prevent restful slumber and, thus, cause dissatisfactory sleep. A lack of satisfactory sleep can lead to increased distress during the day and interfere with daily activities.
Sleep is extremely important in daily functioning, as the body relies on restful and adequate sleep to restore vital cells and nutrients in the body. When the body lacks this opportunity for restoration, it can suffer tremendously and exacerbate other preexisting conditions.
Tips to Manage Stress
There are several ways to address stress and its harmful effects. Whatever the strategy, however, it must be tailored to fit the needs of each individual. Here are some effective stress-relieving methods:
1. Try emotional expression
Expressing feelings, be it through journaling, or sharing of one’s experiences to supportive others, is the most helpful method for alleviating stress.
2. Engage in mindfulness techniques
Becoming more aware of oneself is the key to gaining a sense of control and managing stress responses.
Mindfulness assists in inhibiting your natural stress response, allowing you to be objective observers of your thoughts, feelings, and emotions, thereby giving you space and time to organize and temper your response to a stressful event.
3. Consult an expert
In cases where the stress levels feel too extreme to manage, it is recommended to consult a physician and request a stress assessment.
Following the assessment, a recommendation for treatment may be made, or a referral to a psychotherapist may be ideal for learning appropriate stress management techniques.
Whatever the case, no one needs to suffer alone. There is a community of doctors and therapists able and willing to assist you with your individual needs.
Stress can flare up a number of conditions in the body, including headache, eczema, and insomnia, among others. Therefore, while it is not possible to avoid stress, it is essential to manage or minimize your stress.
Identifying the triggering factors and practicing stress management techniques can help prevent any stress-related complications.
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