You may think of stress as an unavoidable part of life, but did you know too much stress can wreak havoc on your mental and overall health? It’s easy to underestimate the impact of stress when you’re dealing with it from day-to-day.
Here at Wellness Road Psychology, our team helps individuals, couples, and families of all ages take control and improve their lives. Stress is an often overlooked component of our lives, and it’s important to know how it may affect you. Here we discuss what you should know about how stress affects overall health and what you can do about it.
Stress affects everyone
No one is exempt from stress. Everyone experiences some form of stress throughout their lives, whether it's occasional or chronic stress. Not all stress is equal in the way it affects your physical and mental health. Some stressors are brief or one-time occurrences, while others are repeated or last for a longer period.
Additionally, stress impacts people differently. Some people cope with stress in ways that minimize the impact on their lives, while others have more difficulty coping with or bouncing back from stressful events.
Certain types of stress are unavoidable, like the stress of sitting in traffic. Stress can be brought on by certain situations, like losing a job or getting a divorce. Other types of stressful events are traumatic, like a natural disaster or a crime committed against you. These events can be stressful enough to cause symptoms such as flashbacks and nightmares long after the event has passed.
Not all stress is bad. Eustress is the type of stress you experience when excited. Engaging in a competition or riding a roller coaster poses no threat but the excitement causes certain chemicals to surge and your pulse to quicken. Trying something new and challenging or moving away from college are good types of stress that help you create a meaningful life.
When we talk about minimizing stress, we’re referring to stressors that have a negative impact on your health. Here’s how stress can affect your overall health.
The impact of stress on health
As humans, we’re designed to handle short-term stress. Our ancestors had to contend with things like hunting for food and avoiding predators. Our bodies quickly adapt to brief bouts of perceived stress by narrowing arteries and increasing blood flow to our muscles so that we can “fight or flee” a stressful situation.
Long gone are the days of hunting for food and running from predators. Today, stress often involves the challenges of day-to-day life. Whether it’s an ambitious class load, demanding job, or long commute, stress is everywhere in our daily lives.
The physiological changes that offer benefits for dealing with brief episodes of stress are harmful when stress is unrelenting and continues over long periods. The body’s main stress hormone cortisol, for example, is damaging when it remains too high for too long.
When you’re chronically stressed, long-term elevations in cortisol throw nearly every system out of whack. Here’s how chronic stress affects different parts of your body.
Disrupts blood sugar balance
Chronic stress interferes with the way your body uses energy. Glucose is your body’s main source of fuel, and your body works hard to keep levels delicately balanced. Under chronic stress, however, cells become less sensitive to insulin, your body’s blood sugar-regulating hormone.
The resulting insulin resistance raises blood sugar and may increase the risk of type 2 diabetes. In fact, high lifetime stress is linked to a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes, according to research.
Endangers heart health
Your heart and circulatory health are on the losing end when it comes to stress. Long-term stress increases inflammation in your body, which damages blood vessels and instigates heart disease. As with diabetes, chronic stress is linked to a higher risk of heart disease. While your body’s response to stress is meant to protect you, it’s not meant to be ongoing.
Weakens the immune system
You may have heard that you’re more susceptible to getting sick when you’re stressed, and it’s true. Chemicals involved in the stress response, including cortisol, suppress the immune system, reducing the body’s ability to fight off antigens.
In fact, cortisol has such a powerful impact on suppressing immunity that oral corticosteroids are used to treat diseases characterized by an overactive immune system, such as lupus. And, even in those circumstances doctors usually only prescribe corticosteroids in short courses, as long-term use carries significant side effects such as reduced bone density, high blood sugar, high blood pressure, and weight gain.
Help for chronic stress
We’ve discussed just a few of the ways stress damages important systems in your body. It also has a negative impact on your mental health, raising the risk for anxiety, depression, and issues such as disordered eating, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). There are proven and effective ways to manage stress, and we’re here to help. If you’re bogged down with stress, talk to a professional.
As mental health professionals, the team at Wellness Road Psychology can help you understand yourself and the stress in your life better, develop coping strategies, and create a happier, less stressful life.
Contact our team to schedule an appointment with psychologist Dr. Philip Glickman, Jamie Karia, LCSW, Erica Sztabnik, LMHC, Viviana Martinez, LMHC, Tasha Vitales, PhD, or Janice Moore, LCSW. We have offices in NYC and Dobbs Ferry and offer online and phone therapy. You can also book an appointment online.