If you are a busy person, you probably have had to deal with the effects of stress on some level—whether it was enduring a sudden headache, grappling with stomach pains, or struggling to get through a workday in spite of physical or mental fatigue. Many of us feel that grueling stress is an unavoidable part of life in our quest for success, and we try to plow through the resultant pain or discomfort. But, perhaps, too few of us really understand how inhibitive too much stress can be, especially if it is left untreated. Aside from the physical symptoms of stress, such as back pain, chest pain, muscle tension, and low sex drive, stress can cause side effects similar to depression.
Did you know that an estimated 75% of yearly physician office visits in the United States are stress-related? High stress levels disrupt sleep, aggravate pre-existing conditions, cause new health problems, and greatly increase the risk of death in both sick and otherwise healthy individuals. Perhaps after reading up on a few points concerning the tremendous impact of stress, you will be inspired to make adequately dealing with your stress load priority numero uno.
The Effects of Stress, They Add Up
Of course, not all stress is bad. We need a certain amount of physical stress to build muscle, and mental stress to enhance character, develop resourcefulness, and learn. However, both acute stress over the short term or chronic mental stress over the long term can unleash devastating consequences.
A clinical definition of psychosocial stress describes the way in which a person is able to deal with problems, such as a difficult job, a full course load at school, a positive or negative life event, or a disruptive family life. A person becomes stressed when she perceives that the demands of the stressful situation threaten to surpass her own physical or mental resources—which can mean anything from financial resources to mental coping mechanisms, depending on what the stressful situation calls for.
How we are able to meet the challenges of a circumstance that requires greater physical or mental effort is often a reflection of how healthy we are as individuals. The well-being of a community also comes into question if many of its members are not taught effective patterns of coping as part of its culture, or if social mechanisms are not in place, especially if an individual becomes impaired due to psychosocial stressors.
Unraveling any societal stigmas related to mental health also plays a tremendous part when individuals seek to change potentially unhealthy perceptions. Feeling as if we cannot meet the demands of stressful situations can produce toxic feelings of hopelessness and inadequacy. Stress analysts have determined that poorly handled or disregarded negative perceptions of self and situation have colossal effects on a person’s physical health.
Stressors are the events or circumstances that activate the stress response and our fight-or-flight instinct, and pose a potential threat to our well-being. Acute and chronic stress describe stressor intensity levels that may both have long-lasting health effects. Compounded and repetitive low-intensity acute stressors may have similar effects as one high-intensity chronic stressor. Cumulative biological changes that occur as a result of chronic stress across the span of an individual’s life is assessed when determining how stress can induce chronic illness. In a nutshell: The lower your cumulative stress load, the less likely you will be to develop a stress-induced chronic illness.
Stress and Illness
Many disease pathologists believe that stress affects the body in a synergistic fashion. There are multiple links between acute or chronic stress incidences and the body’s endocrine, nervous, and immune systems. Stress causes hypersensitivity that can lead to a dysfunctional immune response for short or long periods of time. This may explain why certain smells seem stronger and certain foods may irritate you more when you are stressed.
The body goes into full defense mode when faced with stressors, and all other activities—digestion, cell reproduction, sexual performance, etc.—take a back seat. In fact, engaging in physically, mentally, or metabolically taxing activities can make matters far worse. Chronic hypersensitivity and dysfunctional immune response trigger an overproduction of stress hormones and biochemical processes that mean big trouble for those afflicted. Here is a short-list of chronic complications.
Allergies, such as asthma, atopic dermatitis, hay fever, and lethal anaphylaxis (an allergic reaction to an antigen that causes life-threatening restriction of air supply as a result of inflammation), have long been thought to have a strong neurological component. Children who live in stressful environments are more likely to experience asthma. Studies have shown that children of mothers who endured stressful events during pregnancy are more likely to develop atopic dermatitis as young children.
Men of low socioeconomic status who are underemployed, unemployed, and have little control over their financial situations are more likely to develop coronary heart disease, which occurs when the heart’s major blood vessels are damaged. In general, chronic stress induces high blood pressure and blood vessel enlargement. Thickened vascular muscles can raise resting blood pressure, which makes the heart work harder, increasing the risk of heart attack. It is widely believed that stress triggers a persistent rise in sympathetic nervous system activity that includes increased blood pressure and an increased heart rate as well as platelet aggregation, which can lead to elevate risk for atherosclerosis.
Stressed individuals are more likely to contract cold and influenza viruses, which are also harder to cure. One theory suggests that people seeking refuge from a stressed environment are more likely to venture outdoors, exposing their respiratory systems to disease-causing pathogens.
Stress hormones catecholamines and cortisol encourage an increased production of glycogen into glucose. Over time, high levels of glucose in the blood can induce insulin insensitivity and diabetes. The presence of hard-to-lose abdominal fat is a common symptom of stress-induced metabolic disorder.
How to Manage Stress
Healthy individuals are resilient creatures that can usually withstand momentarily stressful moments and have coping mechanisms in place to handle stress when it starts to mount up. But experiencing too many of these moments can have a snowball effect, so do not underestimate the damage that may be done to mind and body.
Stress management works in concert with perception, so try to maintain a positive attitude, and be sure to take stock of your best case scenarios. Never anticipate bad news. Take a careful inventory of your thoughts and determine the appropriate time to react to outcomes.
For a greater sense of control and to help lower levels of stress, plan ahead and develop just-in-case strategies when you are doing well. Anticipate change while staying positive, and know that there were others who came before you that made it through similar, if not worse times. Don’t worry, you’ll find your way!