How Stress Affects our Health and Wellbeing

  • By Sharon LaCroix
  • 04 Dec, 2016

Stress Can Be Good - and Bad

How to beat stress
Stressed out!

Stress can really be ramped up during the holiday season, and even without this “happiest time of the year”,  it is a part of our everyday lives . Whether you are a stressed out student cramming for final exams, an entrepreneur, stay at home mom, or CEO of a corporate company, we all experience tension and pressure to get everything done in an all-too-short day.

What is Stress?

Stress can be best described at a state of mental tension. While stress affects everyone in different ways, there are two major types of stress: stress that’s beneficial and motivating — good stress — and stress that causes anxiety and even health problems — bad stress. We need some level of tension in our lives and as such stress can be a motivator needed to get us going, or to help us perform better. For example, most athletes tend to perform best when they have just the right amount of stress. Too little stress decreases our sense of urgency, but too much can paralyze us with anxiety. The happy-medium is when stress is balanced, allowing us to function optimally.

Benefits of Stress

According to experts, stress is a burst of energy that advises you on what to do. In small doses, stress has many advantages. For instance, stress can help you meet daily challenges and motivate you to reach your goals. In fact, stress can help you accomplish tasks more efficiently. It can even boost memory.

Stress is also a vital warning system, producing the fight-or-flight response. When the brain perceives some kind of stress, it starts flooding the body with chemicals like epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol. This creates a variety of reactions such as increased blood pressure and heart rate. And the senses suddenly have a laser-like focus so you can avoid physically dangerous situations — such as jumping away from a moving car.

A little bit of stress has other benefits. Researchers believe that some stress can help to fortify the immune system. For instance, stress can improve how your heart works and protect your body from infection. In one study, individuals who experienced moderate levels of stress before surgery were able to recover faster than individuals who had levels too high or too low.

Bad Stress

Yes stress is key for survival, but too much stress can be detrimental. Emotional stress that stays around for weeks or months can weaken the immune system and cause high blood pressure, fatigue, depression, anxiety and even heart disease. In particular, too much epinephrine can be harmful to your heart. It can change the arteries and how their cells are able to regenerate.

When an individual’s level of stress is too high, it can lead to anxiety, decreased productivity, and health issues. Our bodies and minds are intimately connected and have great effects on one another. So what happens when our stress levels are too high? What happens to our bodies?

Weight gain and unhealthy weight loss

Have you noticed that our diet and mood are closely linked? While many turn to food for comfort in upsetting situations, others lose their appetite. Either way, this is not good for our bodies. If you overeat, this can lead to an increased body fat percentage, which leads to other health issues such as unbalanced blood sugar, high cholesterol, and type II diabetes. But if you don’t eat enough, you will be depriving your body of essential nutrients needed to function optimally. Think of nutrients as fuel for you body, if you don’t have fuel, your body doesn’t run properly. This can lead to fatigue, muscle atrophy, and malnutrition.

Increased risk of heart disease

Heart disease is serious and today is the leading cause of death in women. To decrease the risk of heart disease we can incorporate exercise, a healthy diet, and sufficient sleep. This also means watching our stress levels as ongoing tension can affect cardiovascular and heart health. When you are stressed, your blood pressure elevates as well as your cholesterol, both exerting more tension on your heart. Prolonged high blood pressure and cholesterol add stress to your heart and increases your chances of having cardiovascular problems including heart attacks and heart disease. 

Digestive Issues

Did you know your cardiovascular system is closely linked to your digestive system? Increased heart rate and rapid breathing can upset your digestive system. If you are stressed, you are more likely to develop problems like acid reflux or heartburn. Stress also affects the way food moves through your body and can cause nausea, vomiting, stomach-aches and constipation or diarrhea. And while stress does not cause stomach ulcers it can cause any existing ulcers to flare up. 

Immune System

Our immune system is vital for a healthy body. It helps us fight infection, disease, and aids in the healing process. When you are stressed out, your immune system is stimulated and the hormone cortisol is released into your bloodstream. Cortisol is also known as the “ stress hormone ” and aids in the regulation of blood sugar, anti-inflammatory actions, blood pressure, and heart and blood vessel tone and contraction  Cortisol is essential for optimal bodily function but prolonged increased levels of cortisol can also damage our immune systems by creating chronic inflammatory conditions, lowering the immune system’s ability to fight off infections and heal. And stress results in lower amounts of protein which is critical to signaling other immune cells. 

Sexuality and the reproductive system

Stress can negatively affect your sexual drive along with your reproductive system. For women, stress can cause irregularities in their menstrual cycle and can even lead to absence of menstruation. Or stress can lead to heavier and more painful periods. But males are at risk too. Prolonged stress levels can cause men’s testosterone level to drop leading to decreased sex drive, sperm production, and cause  erectile dysfunction . It can also cause the urethra, prostate, and testes to become more prone to infection.

How to achieve a healthy balance

Watch out for signs of stress overload.  Symptoms of too much stress can be physical, emotional, mental and behavioral. While everyone is different, some common signs are: memory problems, trouble concentrating, racing thoughts, irritability, anger, sadness, headaches, frequent colds and changes in sleep or appetite.

Know what triggers your stress.  Think about what causes you stress, how you react or respond to it and figure out some solutions. Decrease those stress activators.

Exercise.  All forms of exercise reduce stress hormones, flood the body with feel-good endorphins, improve mood, boost energy and provide a healthy distraction. from your dilemmas. Find physical activities that you enjoy and devote 20-30 minutes each day to moving your body.

Relax.  As a result of chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol being released in response to stress your heart rate and breathing speed up and your digestion slows down. This tires out the body. Find out which relaxation techniques work for you — like yoga, napping, breathing exercises, meditation and visualization. Schedule brief relaxation breaks into every day.

Time Management.   Never seems to be enough? First, make a list and focus on one task at a time. Multitasking rarely works. Prioritize your list and break projects into single steps or actions.

Don’t over-commit.  Pulling yourself in different directions will only stress you out, so watch for over commitment and learn how to say “no”.

Don’t self-medicate. Some people use alcohol, drugs, tobacco and other unhealthy habits to cope with stress. Over time these behaviors can negatively affect your mood and physical health, ramping up your stress levels even more.

Reach out. When you are stressed out, talk to your friends and family. If you feel like you can’t handle the stress on your own, schedule an appointment with a professional

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