A little stress can boost productivity, increase resilience and improve problem solving skills, but excessive and continual stress can take its toll on your physical and mental health. Understanding how stress affects your body and mind enables you to develop strategies to counteract its negative effects.
What is Stress?
Stress is a reaction to demands, expectations and changes that you feel unable to cope with. Short-term stress is a normal part of life and can motivate you to take action, make positive changes to your life and can even boost your immune system. However, when the stress is severe or relentless, it can have a devastating impact on your health.
Work, family, health and financial problems are among the most common causes of stress, but any situation where you feel unable to resolve the problem can trigger the distressing physical, mental and emotional symptoms associated with chronic stress. Around 20 percent of the population experience chronic stress, which makes it a major health problem.
How Stress Affects Your Body
Stress triggers the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the fight or flight mechanism that is activated during anxiety and panic attacks. Once this mechanism has been activated, you can experience a wide range of distressing symptoms, including muscle tension, aches and pains, breathlessness, hyperventilation, digestive problems, trembling, weakness, racing heart, tingling sensations and chest pain. These symptoms are usually short-lived, but long-term stress can cause more serious problems.
When you feel stressed, your body releases two hormones: cortisol and noradrenaline. Cortisol triggers the release of glucose into the blood, while noradrenaline increases your blood pressure and heart rate. If these hormones are continually being released into your body, the consequences can be devastating. Studies have shown that chronic high stress levels increase the risk of several serious diseases, including high blood pressure (hypertension), cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes and even some types of cancer.
How Stress Affects Your Mind
Long-term stress can have a negative impact on the hippocampus. The hippocampus is the part of the brain associated with memory, learning and emotion. It's also one of the main areas of the brain where new brain cells are created.
Stress can destroy brain cells, shrink certain parts of the brain and cause changes to the brain's structure, leading to difficulties with memory and cognitive function. Chronic stress increases the risk of mental health problems, including depression, anxiety disorders, mood swings and even problems with appetite control.
How Stress Affects Your Life
Chronic stress and the associated symptoms can also have a huge impact on other areas of your life, including relationships, family, social and work life. Fatigue, pain, mood swings, depression, anxiety and other symptoms can affect your ability to work and maintain close relationships. Meanwhile, lack of concentration, memory problems and reduced cognitive function can make it difficult to study and learn new skills.
How You Can Reduce the Impact of Stress
While it may be impossible to remove all stress from your life, there are several things you can do to reduce the impact that stress has on your physical and mental health.
- Take care of your body by getting plenty of sleep
- Eat a balanced diet
- Take regular exercise. If you are unable to do this then even a daily walk of 50 minutes or more can really help
- Make time to relax every day. This is important to take care of your emotional health
- Regular meditation, keeping a journal and using talking therapies can all help to prevent depression, anxiety and other mental health problems
Stress can have a serious impact on your life, especially your mental and physical health. Chronic stress can even lead to serious disease, including some types of cancer. Managing your stress levels by taking care of your body and mind is the key to preventing stress-related disease.
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