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Don’t Let Stress Hurt Your Health

May 10, 2024

By Yussein Aguirre, MD

Stress is a part of life that we all deal with. But it’s important to remember that stress is not just a state of mind. Stress includes physical changes in our bodies. Anger, fear, excitement, and other overwhelming emotions can lead our bodies to release hormones that cause physical reactions. This can be a racing heartbeat, rapid breathing, sweating, crying, and more.

While these reactions may feel extreme at the moment, they are normal – and typically don’t cause any harm to our health when they occur quickly and infrequently. But chronic or prolonged stress can contribute to health issues like heart disease, mental disorders, and more.

Health Issues Caused by Chronic Stress

Frequent stressful experiences can affect the major systems in your body, leading to serious health conditions.

Overwhelmed by stress

High blood pressure, stroke, and heart attack – Because stress may cause a fasting heartbeat, chronic stress can put undue strain on your cardiovascular system.

Asthma attacks – Prolonged stress can worsen existing respiratory problems, which often causes rapid breathing and shortness of breath.

Type 2 diabetes, heartburn, acid reflux, and upset stomach – Stress and anxiety can alter your body’s natural digestive process, producing excess stomach acid. Stress can also cause your liver to increase blood sugar, which can cause your body to start having trouble breaking down excess glucose.

Reproductive system issues – Chronically elevated stress hormones can affect other hormones. Men may experience a drop in testosterone levels, affecting sperm production and causing erectile dysfunction. For women, stress and anxiety can affect the menstrual cycle, causing irregular periods and more severe PMS symptoms.

Illness and infection – Short periods of stress can stimulate your immune system, which signals to your body that healing needs to take place. But chronic stress may weaken your immune system, leaving your body vulnerable.

Head and body aches – Muscles often tense during stress. But frequent or constant stress means your muscles don’t get a chance to relax. This can cause pain that makes daily activities and sleep difficult.

Temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD) – When stress causes frequent jaw clenching, it could lead to chronic jaw or neck pain, earaches, and teeth misalignment.

Teeth grinding (bruxism) – Teeth grinding during sleep may be due to unresolved stress and anxiety during the day. This can lead to dental problems.

Weight gain – Stress can lead to overeating, which can cause weight gain. 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 adopt stress management techniques and lifestyle changes to help reduce the long-term impact of stress on your overall health.

 Image of a young woman doing exercises in her home. 
  • 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 or staying asleep.
  • Do things you enjoy that help you relax, including self-care activities.
  • 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 primary care doctor for stress management options or ways to help you better manage your overall stress or specific stress triggers.
Portrait of Yussein Aguirre, MD, Family Medicine specialist at Kelsey-Seybold Clinic.

About the Author

Dr. Aguirre’s philosophy of care centers on listening to her patients. Without listening to their concerns, she would not be able to address their health appropriately.
Dr. Adesina from Kelsey-Seybold Clinic

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