How Stress Affects Your Health
If you remain in chronic stress mode for weeks, months or years, your mind and body begin to break down. Stress signals the need for you to adjust to physical, emotional or mental situations around you.
The stress response – also known as “fight-or-flight” – is a natural one that helps you deal with urgent situations such as a car accident, a final exam or an immediate reaction to violence.
It prepares your body to take action in that stressful moment but it is only supposed to be temporary.
The physical symptoms of stress manifest not only as illness, but also as premature aging. The outward signs of stress cause even more anxiousness, which in turn creates more stress – prompting a vicious cycle that can be difficult to break.
Experts estimate that 75% of doctor’s visits are due to stress-related ailments.
Chronic stress causes an increase in your cortisol and adrenaline (epinephrine) levels. Under normal conditions this is a natural stress response that causes no long-term effects – but only if it is temporary.
Stress that lasts for longer periods of time causes your body to keep pumping out these “stress hormones” and creates a domino effect on your health.
Top 5 Ways Stress Negatively Impacts Your Health
1. Weight gain
Emotional eating in an attempt to feel better is something many of us do during periods of stress.
The desire for “comfort foods” makes it harder to choose healthy options. Not to mention, several studies have found that stress increases your cravings for sugar and fat.
Some people find themselves unable to eat when they feel anxious, putting their systems into “starvation mode,” a bodily reaction that has also been linked to weight gain.
According to research by the Mayo Clinic, the cortisol hormone (which increases in production during stressful periods) affects how much fat your body retains and has been connected to a higher percentage of abdominal fat.
2. Mood disorders
The physical symptoms of stress are often more obvious than the mental ones. Depression, anxiety and irritability are just a few of the very real effects stress has on your mental health.
Researchers at Yale University discovered that chronic stress may actually alter your brain chemistry, causing the hippocampus region of the brain – the area responsible for memory – to atrophy. Long-term exposure can cause damage to other areas of the brain that manage emotion and self-control.
Stress blocks the mood enhancing neuritin gene – responsible for neuron health – a side effect that has been discovered in recent studies. “Neuritin produced a response that looked exactly like an antidepressant,” explained Ronald Duman, Yale neurobiologist.
“I was surprised to find this molecule was sufficient, by itself, to block the effects of stress and depression.”
3. Acne and hair loss
Too much cortisol increases oil production, which leads to acne breakouts. It’s no coincidence that you seem to get a pimple before nerve-wracking events such as a big presentation or your wedding.
If you have psoriasis, stress can worsen your condition – or cause it to pop up for the first time.
Those myths about stress causing gray hair? Not a myth! Stress will make you gray and can cause your hair to thin and fall out. For those who tug on their hair nervously, bald patches are often the result.
Avoid showers that are too hot and try not to over-process your hair with color treatments, styling and hair products. Finding the right skin care regimen will help – but not prevent – the damage caused by stress. The only thing that will halt rapid aging of your hair and skin is to minimize the stress in your life.
4. Muscle tension and migraines
Headaches are often a sign of a bigger problem, and stress-induced headaches are no different. Research has linked stress-induced vascular changes to the development of migraines and has found that stress also makes existing migraines far worse.
Muscle tension caused by stress can lead to chronic pain because your body is constantly wound up for “action” – ready to react to chemically perceived danger.
Several studies in the United States and Europe have linked chronic pain to feelings of negativity, anger and mental distress.
5. Difficulty sleeping
Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder in the world. Chronic stress leads to hyper arousal – you simply do not feel sleepy or you have poor sleep quality. As many as 60% of adults in the United States have markers for insomnia. When years go by without adequate sleep, the effect on your health is very serious.
Insomniacs are five times more likely to develop depression or anxiety – and those with depression and anxiety are just as likely to develop insomnia. Not getting enough sleep also makes you twice as likely to develop heart disease.
Sleep specialists warn that pharmaceutical sleep aids do not work long-term – you must reprogram your sleep patterns. Exercise and meditation have shown the greatest relief for insomniacs. Getting enough quality sleep is as vital to your body as diet and exercise are.
The link between stress and disease is difficult to nail down but many in the scientific community estimate that stress is the root cause of as much as 90% of disease. In a study of 200,000 Europeans, it was discovered that those with stressful jobs or home lives were 23% more likely to have a heart attack.
Indigestion, sexual dysfunction, higher blood sugar levels and a compromised immune system are other physical symptoms of stress.