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How can chronic stress affect my health?

Chronic, unrelenting stress—the kind that modern life is too full of—changes your brain and body in all sorts of ways. Memory slips. Blood pressure rises. You gain fat around your belly, the unhealthiest place to put on pounds. This is called visceral fat because it’s deeply embedded around your vital organs, thus increasing your risk for heart disease, cancer and other illnesses. Your immune system takes a hit and you become more susceptible to infections. (Which explains why you’re more likely to get a cold when you are overworked or overwrought.) Wound healing slows by as much as 40 percent, oil glands go into overdrive, and inflammation takes off. Plus, free radicals proliferate and run wild, subtly damaging skin and eventually drying it out, creating wrinkles and turning softness to sag. What’s more, some elements within the skin, including the hair follicles, are supersensitive to stress hormones. This may explain why some people lose their hair or grow it in the wrong places after a serious bout of emotional stress as hormones send the wrong message or no message at all. No, stress has nothing to do with the growing shag on your husband’s back—that’s caused by different hormones!

Unfortunately, the ability to turn off the stress response, and return cortisol levels to normal, appears to decline with age. And, as these negative factors persist, your antioxidant defense mechanism takes a hit, leaving you vulnerable to disease and accelerated aging on the inside and outside.

Few people can weather and wear stress well. While you may not so easily see clogged arteries, high blood pressure and abdominal fat, for example, in someone, you can usually see the signs of stress in her appearance.

From The Mind-Beauty Connection: 9 Days to Less Stress, Gorgeous Skin, and a Whole New You by Amy Wechsler.

Dr. Marni Feuerman, LCSW, MFT
Marriage & Family Therapy Specialist

The body doesn’t distinguish between physical and psychological threats. When you’re stressed over a busy schedule, an argument with a friend, a traffic jam or a pile of bills, your body reacts just as strongly as if you were facing a life-or-death situation. If you have a lot of responsibilities and worries, your emergency stress response (adrenaline) may be “on” most of the time. The more your body’s stress system is activated, the easier it is to trip and the harder it is to shut off.

Long-term exposure to stress can lead to serious health problems. Chronic stress disrupts nearly every system in your body. It can raise blood pressure, suppress the immune system, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, contribute to infertility, and speed up the aging process. Long-term stress can even rewire the brain, leaving you more vulnerable to anxiety and depression.

Continue Learning about Stress

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How Does Chronic Stress Contribute to Heart Disease?
What Are Some Natural Methods to Reduce Stress?
What Are Some Natural Methods to Reduce Stress?
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How Does Early Trauma in Childhood Affect Health?
What Are Healthy Ways to Reduce Stress?
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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.