In the world we live in, stress is a given. And it does more than just suck. Left unchecked, long-term stress can do more than merely stress you out — your mental state of mind can wreak devastating physical consequences on your body, resulting in illness and possibly even death.
When talking about stress, says University of Colorado Boulder integrative physiology Professor Bob Mazzeo, you have to differentiate between different types of stress. There’s acute stress — narrowly avoiding a car accident, for example — and chronic stress, such as wear and tear at work, that lasts a long time. It’s chronic stress that is usually the more dangerous, Mazzeo says.
“Basically, there are hormonal responses to those types of stressors. There are immunological responses to those types of stressors,” he says. “Other stressors, like work-related stress, can elevate blood pressure, heart rate, chances of heart disease, type 2 diabetes.”
That’s right — chronic stress, which is essentially a perception in which a person feels they have no control over a situation in their lives — starts mentally and ends physically. Essentially, Mazzeo explains, certain specific areas of the brain react to fear and anxiety and release hormones that can affect bodily functions.
“[Some] centers in the brain … will convert the mental stress into electrical signals in the brain, which activate key endocrine glands and nervous system pathways that release these neurochemicals that have these physiological effects peripheral to the brain. And they can affect everything, including blood flow, blood pressure, heart rate and immune function,” Mazzeo says.
There are many different triggers for stress, and each person reacts to the same event differently. Cultivating an awareness of what stresses you out is the first step to successful stress management. One method of measuring stress, the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, lists about 50 events in life that provide varying degrees of stress, from family reunions and vacations to trouble with the boss, illness in the family, personal injury and even a change in sleeping habits. The more stressful events in your life, the higher the likelihood you’ll become ill.
The consequences of chronic stress are nothing to sneeze at, either. Headaches, backaches, upset stomachs, insomnia, anxiety, depression, aggression, mood swings, even high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes can be linked to stress.
Luckily, there are a few easy fixes that can easily help reduce the
negative effects of stress in your life. Certain activities, like
meditation, yoga and certain hobbies, can dramatically reduce stress
levels. Sleep deprivation is also a major cause of stress, so simply
ensuring you get a full seven or eight hours of sleep every night will
put you on the right path towards reducing stress. Eating healthy foods
and controlling your diet also help reduce stress and build up your
body’s resistance to the negative effects of stress.
But the easiest, lowest-hanging fruit with regards to stress is something we all know we should do more of: exercise.
Both aerobic and resistance training can go a long way in improving mood. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends adults get 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity in addition to two days of weight training each week in order to be healthy, and that amount of exercise can drastically help reduce the negative effects of stress. As the Mayo Center points out, exercise produces the body’s natural happiness drug, endorphins, which can alleviate bad moods. Exercise can also provide a valuable respite from the day’s problems, as the mind stops focusing on everything but the repetitive motion of the exercise. A healthy lifestyle can also boost your immune system, which get weaken when a person is dealing with chronic stress.
“[Exercise] will increase your immune response,” Mazzeo says. “A lot of times with stress, your immune system gets suppressed, and it gets significantly less suppressed if you’re in better shape.”
But the biggest benefit of exercise might be that it’s simply a distraction. For whatever reason, the feeling of not being in control, which causes chronic stress in the first place, is lessened after exercise.
“It’s an emotional outlet where people can take better control and regulation of their life,” Mazzeo says. “It gives them some self-assurance and confidence in that regard.”