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Address Your Stress to Improve Your Health
By Roland Prezas, DO, FAAFP
We all experience stress from time to time. Our bodies are built to handle and react to stressful situations, whether we’re excited, angry, or frightened. No matter the stress trigger, the body responds by releasing hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, which cause physical reactions. Our hearts beat faster, our breathing becomes rapid, our muscles tense, and we may start sweating or even having an emotional response, such as crying.
When these moments are quick and infrequent, there’s typically no harm done to our bodies. But chronic or prolonged stress can take a toll, causing the nervous system to become unbalanced and contributing to a number of health issues, from heart disease to mental disorders.
Health Issues Caused by Chronic Stress
The more stressful experiences you have, the more your nervous system registers emotional reactions as physical ones, and the more the major systems in your body are affected.
- Cardiovascular system – Because stress causes your heart to beat faster and harder, chronic stress can put undue strain on your heart, which can lead to high blood pressure, stroke, and heart attack.
- Respiratory system – If you already have a respiratory problem, such as asthma, prolonged stress can potentially make your condition worse. When stress causes your breathing to become more rapid, the muscles that help you inhale and exhale can become tense, resulting in shortness of breath.
- Digestive system – Stress and anxiety can alter the body’s natural digestive process by producing excess stomach acid, leading to heartburn, acid reflux, and upset stomach. Stress can also cause the liver to increase your blood sugar. When this happens repeatedly, your body may start having trouble breaking down excess glucose, which can lead to Type 2 diabetes.
- Reproductive system – Chronically elevated stress hormones can throw other hormones off balance. When men experience prolonged stress, they may have a drop in testosterone levels, sometimes interfering with sperm production and causing erectile dysfunction. In women, stress and anxiety can cause changes in the menstrual cycle, including irregular periods and more severe PMS symptoms.
- Immune system – During short periods of stress, your immune system is stimulated, which signals to the body that healing needs to take place. But chronic stress can actually weaken the immune system, making you more vulnerable to illness and infection.
- Muscular system – Your muscles tend to tense when you’re stressed. This is your body’s way of protecting your muscles from injury. When you experience frequent or constant stress, your muscles don’t get a chance to relax. This can lead to head and body aches that make daily activities and sleep difficult.
Other health issues that can be triggered by prolonged periods of stress include:
- Temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD) – If stress causes you to clench your jaw frequently, you could develop chronic jaw or neck pain, earaches, and teeth misalignment.
- Teeth grinding (bruxism) – If you grind your teeth during sleep, it may be due to unresolved stress and anxiety during the day. This can lead to a variety of dental problems.
- Weight gain – Stress can lead to overeating, which can cause weight gain, but there may also be a connection between chronically elevated levels of cortisol (a hormone released during stress) and being overweight.
Frequent stress and anxiety can also lead to depression, drug and alcohol abuse, and insomnia, which can all contribute to other health problems.
How to Manage Chronic Stress
You may not be able to change the situations that are causing your stress, but you can implement ways to manage stress, so it doesn’t wreak havoc on your health.
- Learn and practice deep breathing techniques, yoga, and meditation.
- Eat a healthy diet and get regular exercise.
- Get plenty of sleep. Ask your doctor about natural and prescription sleep aids if you have trouble falling sleep or staying asleep.
- Find time to do things you enjoy that help you relax, including self-care activities like massage.
- Start journaling to redirect and refocus your thoughts. This can serve as a healthy release of negative thoughts or feelings.
- Seek professional counseling or talk to your doctor to learn ways you can better cope with stress.