Stress — far too many people have too much of it. While it originates in a need for self-preservation, it can turn against you, wreaking havoc on your physical and mental health.
Recent scientific research implicates stress exacerbates the symptoms of nearly every disease. It can also drive maladaptive behaviors that negatively affect your health.
Fortunately, science also illuminates fact-based methods for easing excess tension and returning your body to a normal resting state. Doing so could add years to your life and increase your vitality. Here’s the science behind why stress management is so essential to health.
The Physical Symptoms of Excessive Stress
You probably recognize the signs of sudden, overwhelming stress that strikes as a panic attack. Your heart begins pounding, you get simultaneously cold and sweaty and you may experience chest pain, making you worry about a possible heart attack.
As frightening as they are, these temporary adrenaline spikes aren’t dangerous — they provide your body with the necessary tools for fight or flight, helping you get out of Dodge or resist an attack.
The more insidious form of stress strikes every day. You swear you’ll scream if your micromanaging supervisor hangs over your shoulder while you work one more time — but you can’t afford to quit your job thanks to your bills. You grit your teeth and resign yourself to another day, ignoring that every Sunday evening leaves you near tears.
However, this chronic stress will manifest in other ways if you don’t address it. For example, pay attention if you start to feel dizzy and lightheaded when your supervisor approaches. The sudden spike in adrenaline affects your blood pressure, producing vertigo.
Another sign of chronic stress is bruxism or teeth-grinding. Unfortunately, this physical manifestation can bring on more tension, thanks to the high price of dental care in the United States. You could end up with broken teeth that a dentist has to crown or remove, and the psychological toll of missing teeth can impact other areas of your life. It can even affect your career if your job depends on your physical appearance.
Chronic stress all too often equates to chronic pain. For example, bruxism can trigger migraines, making it impossible to focus on daily activities. Painful muscle spasms can result in backaches and endocrine disruption can wreak havoc on your reproductive system and even trigger fibromyalgia flares according to some research.
The Mental Toll of Ongoing Stress
Stress also takes a devastating toll on your mental health. It contributes to anxiety and depression, and rates have soared since the unique pressures brought about by COVID-19. According to the World Health Organization, such disorders have increased by 25% since the pandemic began.
Ongoing stress can contribute to the negative feedback loop often seen in anxiety. For example, you see your problematic supervisor and think, “They’re on her way to berate my work again.” Your palms grow sweaty and your teeth clench. Your angry jawline signals to your brain that you’re mad and you think, “They never have anything good to say about my work.” Your ire grows and the cycle continues.
Stress can also trigger the rumination so characteristic of depression. The same stimulus — spying your supervisor — might make you think, “Maybe they’re right. Maybe I can’t do anything correctly. After all, think about all the other times I failed.” Before you know it, you’ve gone down a mental rabbit hole of all the things you’ve ever done wrong — while doing nothing to change the current situation.
Long-Term Health Impacts of Too Much Stress
When you examine the long-term health impacts of too much stress, things can get worrisome. Your body is an intricately interconnected space and what happens in your mind affects other areas.
Perhaps the most dangerous effect of chronic stress impacts your heart. Adrenaline and cortisol — your dual stress hormones — elevate blood pressure, increasing your risk of heart attack and stroke. Worse, research indicates that ongoing stress can rewire your brain to keep your blood pressure elevated, making it more challenging to reverse the effects.
Stress also impacts cardiovascular health by driving your habits. You might overindulge in fatty foods, alcohol or nicotine in an attempt to relax. However, each of these substances increases your cardiovascular disease risk. Saturated fat clogs arteries. Even one drink increases blood pressure slightly and ongoing heavy indulgences can keep it elevated. Smoking causes arterial hardening and contributes to plaque buildup.
Many people turn to food to cope with stress. After all, it’s widely available and not illegal. However, overeating contributes to physical health problems, putting excess strain on organs and joints. Additionally, it can backfire — you feel bad about binge-eating, leading you to embark on an extreme diet, which in turn triggers another binge.
Chronic stress also increases your risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes and alcoholism. Fortunately, scientists haven’t found a definitive link between stress and cancer development. However, it might help the disease return after treatment. Adrenaline and cortisol affect neutrophils — a type of immune cell that can reactivate dormant cancer cells remaining in the body after chemotherapy.
Science-Based Ways to Manage Stress
Now that you understand the myriad ways stress can impact your overall health, what can you do to combat it the healthy way? The techniques below offer proven stress-relieving benefits.
Exercise is perhaps the best natural way to defeat stress. It taps into your body’s innate fight-or-flight response system, letting you dispel cortisol and adrenaline how nature intended — through physical movement. It also produces endorphins, which are the feel-good brain chemicals improving your mood.
2. Go Outdoors
The great outdoors can heal you in more ways than one. Research indicates that merely gazing at pictures of natural scenes decreases stress hormone levels and increases focus and concentration.
Getting outside is even better for you, but use sound if you can’t. Add a small water fountain to your desk to relax while you work — it simulates typing by a babbling stream.
3. Practice Yoga
Yoga coordinates your breath and body movement. Deep breathing alone effectively mitigates stress by balancing your body’s sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. When you combine it with the endorphins produced by gentle exercise, you can’t help but feel relieved and relaxed.
Meditation can change the default thought patterns keeping you trapped in negative feedback loops. It also provides insight into how you see the world, allowing you to determine if a viewpoint is correct or distorted. You can then correct those maladaptive ideas with healthier ones.
5. Talk to Someone
Your someone could be a friend or a licensed therapist. If you go with the former, choose wisely. Select someone with a positive attitude who will uplift you, not someone who only wants a fellow soul with whom to complain about how bad things are.
Please know that there is no stigma in seeking therapy. Millions of people do so daily to help overcome their problems even when they don’t have a diagnosed mental health disorder.
Stress Management Is Crucial for Good Health
The health effects of stress are no joke. Over the short term, they can produce unpleasant physical symptoms and make you feel off your game. When tension becomes chronic, it can contribute to fatal disease and spiral into anxiety and depression.
Now that you understand why stress management is so vital to health, use the coping tips above to mitigate the pressure in your life. You could feel better and do much toward preserving your overall vitality.