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Is Your Stress Harming Your Health?

Is Your Stress Harming Your Health?

Feel stressed from time to time? It may not always be a bad thing.

We know that smoking and distracted driving can post serious health risks, but could stress be dangerous too? Everyone feels stress from time to time. It rarely feels good but some anxiety may not always be a bad thing. In small doses, stress can actually be the spice of life.

“Having a little bit of stress in your life is important, because it forces us to change and modify and adapt,” says Cesar Figueroa, MD, a psychiatrist at Coliseum Medical Centers in Macon, Georgia. “When you experience stress in response to a problem, it allows you to organize yourself and learn from the experience to become a better person.”

Too much stress however, particularly over a prolonged period of time, can take a toll on your health and quality of life. It can dampen your immune system and even contribute to heart disease.

Here’s how you can use daily stress to amp up your performance and recognize when you’re dealing with too much.

How short-term stress can work for you
An occasional burst of short-term stress isn’t usually cause of alarm. The infamous “fight-or-flight” response—that danger-inspired hormone rush that tenses your muscles, raises your blood pressure and spikes your heart rate—also allows you to react quickly and decisively.

“I ask my patients, ‘How else do you think our caveman ancestors survived being chased by saber-toothed tigers?’ If they just chilled out and did deep breathing when confronted with such dangers, none of us would be here today," Dr. Figueroa says.

These days, you’re not likely to be fighting off ferocious beasts. In the 21st century, short-term stressors typically come in the form of overdemanding bosses, aggressive drivers on the commute home or electronic devices sending us alerts at all hours of the day.

But there’s a boon to that surge of adrenaline and cortisol you get when an email from your boss hits your inbox labeled “screaming red-alert priority.”

This rush of stress hormones boosts the level of sugar circulating in your bloodstream, giving you a jolt of energy. Meanwhile, your brain’s activity goes into overdrive, drawing more oxygen and glucose from the blood for peak performance. This, in turn, improves your memory and concentration in the short-term, explains Figueroa, which is why you may find that you’re miraculously so productive when you’re up against a rapidly approaching deadline.

There is some evidence that short bursts of stress may also benefit the brain on a cellular level, possibly ramping up the production of new brain cells in the hippocampus (the memory center of the brain). But this research and most other compelling studies thus far have been conducted in animals and is not necessarily translatable to the human brain. More research is needed to better understand how acute stress may benefit brain health.

Why too much stress is bad
Intermittent jolts of stress—whether caused by a semi veering into your lane on the highway or your boss’s last-minute request to rewrite her speech—may increase mental alertness and cognitive performance, helping you rise to the occasion.

But chronic stress is a different ballgame. (Think: a harrowing commute every single day, combined with a boss who routinely hurls crises into your lap, topped off with the other gnawing stressors—marital woes, financial troubles, worries about children and aging parents—that many of us routinely experience.) Too much of that sort of stress over a prolonged period of time can be harmful.

“Chronic stress becomes bad,” Figueroa cautions. “You want to be able to turn your stress response on and off, much like a thermostat.”

When stress is left unchecked—when you’re in fight-or-flight mode 24/7—and those stress hormones are constantly churning throughout your body, Figueroa says, they do damage to everything from your heart and brain cells to your immune system.

Stress can also lead to poor sleep, which over time can lead to anxiety and irritability as well as some chronic health issues. A November 2018 study published in the journal Sleep suggests that fewer Americans are getting the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep each night. For the study, the team collected survey data from nearly 400,000 adults between 18 and 84-years old over the course of 13 years. The rate of short sleep duration was relatively steady between 2004 and 2012. In 2013 however, about 30 percent of those polled reported getting six or fewer hours of sleep each night. That number increased to 33 percent by 2017. Researchers speculate that in addition to increased use of smartphones, tablets and computers, stress related to economic woes and political unrest could be negatively affecting Americans’ sleep.

Consistently logging fewer hours of shuteye has been linked to a higher risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, diabetes and depression.

An Australian study published in August 2018 in the medical journal Circulation, involving around 222,000 people older than age 45, also found that those with a high degree of mental distress had a significantly higher risk of heart attack or stroke.

A separate Swedish study published in June 2018 in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that people who experienced stress-related psychiatric disorders were up to 36 percent more likely to develop an auto-immune disorder later in life—and that likelihood was 46 percent greater for those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Assess your stress
You can help determine if your stress is reaching harmful levels by keeping track of day-to-day symptoms such as:

  • Feeling more irritable than usual
  • Having trouble falling and staying asleep
  • Headaches
  • Feeling depressed and/or anxious
  • Getting sick with the common cold, or other infections more frequently or easily

If you’re noticing any of these symptoms, and they seem to persist for more than a couple weeks, it may be a sign that stress is straining your body, says Figueroa.

The trackers in the Sharecare app (available for iOS and Android) can help you keep tabs on your sleep and stress levels so you can see which way your stress is trending.

How to manage stress
Stress manifests itself in different ways for different people, and there is no one-size-fits-all stress remedy for everyone. That said, you can take the first steps toward keeping stress in check by adopting an overall healthy lifestyle that includes getting plenty of exercise, enough rest and incorporating activities that give you pleasure, like spending time reading or catching up with friends, advises Figueroa. You can also try tips like these:

Go for a walking meditation. You probably know that getting regular exercise can help improve your mood and lower stress levels. But the benefits of movement may be even more pronounced when you practice mindfulness—the art of focusing intently and non-judgmentally on your breathing and surroundings, suggests a 2018 study published in the journal Psychology of Sports and Exercise.

Be self-aware. Over time, the effects of stress can build up, taking a toll on your heath and overall quality of life. By learning to recognize how you respond to stress—such as having trouble sleeping, drinking more alcohol, being more easily irritated or feeling depressed or tired—you can take steps to better cope you’re your stress and manage these effects.

Get regular physical activity. A 30-minute daily walk can help boost your mood and ease stress. You could also try some other gentle exercises that may help you relax, such as yoga or tai chi. Blocking off time in your schedule for physical activity can help ensure that it becomes part of your daily routine. Stress can also slow your metabolism. Being more active can help offset this effect and help prevent unwanted weight gain.  

Seek out support. Be sure to talk to your healthcare provider about your stress level and how it’s affecting your health and quality of life. Stress or anxiety that disrupts your daily routine may be a sign of a more serious health issue. It’s also important to stay connected to friends, loved ones and members of your community who can provide you with some support.

Prioritize sleep. When you’re anxious, it’s hard to conk out. This creates a vicious cycle: your body compensates by churning out even more stress hormones as a way to keep you awake and alert. It might help to take a look at your sleep hygiene. Try doing a few minutes of yoga or meditation before bed to help you nod off. Avoid digital devices, such as your phone, tablet or laptop, for a couple hours before bed; the blue light they emit can throw of your body’s internal clock, making it harder to fall asleep.

There are times, of course, when the stresses of life—from everyday nuisances to long-term burdens—accumulate and become too much to handle.

If you find yourself self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, or simply feel overwhelmed, seek help from a professional. Sharecare’s Find a Doctor tool can help you find a mental health professional in your area. And if you (or a loved one) feel like you’re reaching a breaking point, with thoughts of suicide or self-harm, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 right away. People considering suicide can also reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting ‘HELLO’ to 741741. They will be connected with a person who will listen to their concerns without judgement. 

This article was medically reviewed and updated in September 2019.

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