According to the American Institute of Stress, more than half of Americans feel stressed during the day. More than 60% of American workers are considering quitting their jobs to avoid work-related stress. Most people who feel stressed at work experience this feeling chronically.
On top of that, we can’t deny that the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted our lives even more, causing turmoil in our mental health. And now we’re living with its aftermath.
Even with all that, we still tend to dismiss stress as something normal. While a certain amount of stress is natural, there can be no doubt that chronic or extreme stress can be more dangerous than we think. Here’s why.
What Is Stress?
Let’s start from the beginning.
Stress is a common response to challenging situations. It can be both mental and physical. In stressful situations, our body releases stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline. When that happens, our body experiences physical changes to create an adequate response to the stressful situation. That response is called ‘the fight or flight’ mechanism. When you’re facing challenges, this mechanism switches on by releasing hormones. While it’s a natural thing, it can become a problem when it is frequent or when it lasts a long time.
How to Know When Stress Has Gotten Too Far
Before moving on to the consequences of stress, we need to cover an essential question: how do you know when the amount of stress you’re experiencing is simply too much?
Well, some physical signs could show you. Your heart beating too fast and an uneasy feeling in your stomach are just passing reactions. However, when you are feeling unable to cope and overwhelmed, things may have gotten too far. Also, look out for the following:
- feelings of constant worry
- changes in appetite
- changes in sleep patterns
- muscle tension
- difficulty concentrating
- mood changes
- withdrawal from friends and family
- thoughts of self-harm
- reliance on alcohol and substances to cope
Now, let’s talk about the ways in which stress can harm your health.
Shortness of Breath
Shortness of breath is a common response to a stressful situation. However, for people with existing respiratory problems, such as asthma, this can cause real harm. Rapid breathing can also lead to hyperventilation and even panic attacks. When under stress, you may feel like your chest is getting tighter and you’re suffocating. During this stress response, you can also feel like you have a lump in your throat or even experience dizziness.
This one is easy to treat if you focus on it right away. It may seem counterproductive to focus on your breathing when this is exactly the thing that is stressing you out, but that’s exactly what you need to do. Using the right tactics, you can reduce stress by breathing deeply from your belly. Changing your breathing pattern requires some work, but you can first try with a couple of short exercises.
High Blood Pressure
Being under stress can cause short-term spikes in blood pressure. This happens because your body releases hormones that cause the blood vessels to narrow and the heart to beat faster. When the stress goes away, the blood pressure should return to normal.
While we do not know that stress by itself can cause long-term high blood pressure, we do know that unhealthy reactions to stressful situations raise blood pressure and heighten the risk of stroke or heart attack.
Stress-reducing activities can help you avoid such outcomes. The changes in your lifestyle can include adjusting your schedule, being physically active, eating a balanced diet, and learning to cope with challenges.
Maintaining a healthy weight may become difficult when you’re stressed out. Stress can even impact your chances of losing weight.
This can be the result of high levels of cortisol. The rise in this hormone can cause higher insulin levels, which consequently causes blood sugar drops. The drop in blood sugar leads to craving fatty, sugary foods. Even if you avoid eating sugary and other unhealthy foods, high levels of cortisol can slow down your metabolism.
In addition to hormonal changes, stress can also cause you to engage in various unhealthy behaviors such as emotional eating, eating fast food (lack of motivation to prep and cook), skipping meals, and exercising less.
Weakening the Immune System
Do you know how we like to say ‘worried sick’? This hyperbolic phrase dates back to the 1800s, and it is used to describe extreme anxiety accompanied by physical symptoms such as headaches, unexplained pain, stomachache, and sometimes even fever. But stress can also make you more susceptible to other health issues.
When cortisol levels stay elevated for too long, your immune system suffers. This state can even damage the body’s cells and elevate inflammation, which increases the risk of viruses and infections.
We’ve already mentioned an uneasy feeling in the stomach as a symptom of stress. There’s a strong connection between our brain and our digestive system.
When we are stressed, our fight-or-flight response prepares the body to protect us by conserving non-essential functions, such as digestion. This can lead to heartburn, stomachache, nausea, and indigestion. Also, stress can trigger increased motor function in the large intestine, causing diarrhea or bowel urgency.
When the stress is chronic, these digestive problems become chronic too. While stress can’t be the cause of diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, it can intensify their symptoms.
Last but not least, stress leaves a mark on your skin. The infamous cortisol causes the hypothalamus in your brain to produce another hormone — corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). This hormone stimulates excessive oil production, which can clog your pores, resulting in acne.
Furthermore, puffiness or swelling under the eyelids is another visible consequence of stress. This happens because of sleep deprivation caused by stress. Other visible manifestations of stress are dry skin, rashes, sore lips, and wrinkles. Finally, stress can literally make your hair go gray and disrupt your hair’s growth cycle.
Stress doesn’t have to ruin your health. If you decide to face it seriously, you can prevent the consequences. Slow down, take a deep breath, and take the time to learn about stress management tactics. Lastly, do your best to embrace some positive habits that will help you lead a healthier, more stress-free lifestyle.