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
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
“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.”