Chronic stress produces real, adverse effects on your mental and physical health. The side effects of stress include everything from putting on a few extra pounds and having difficulty falling asleep, to severe medical complications like heart disease and ulcers.
At CityHealth Urgent Care, we take your health seriously. And that includes your stress levels, too. We’ve put together this quick guide to give you everything you need to know about stress: what causes it, what it’s doing to your body (both in the short term and over the long term), positive steps that you can take to decrease the effects of stress in your life, and where to turn to for help if you think it is getting the better of your health.
Things That Cause Stress
In its simplest form, stress is the body’s way of reacting to certain stimuli. Stress is a series of biochemical and physiological changes designed to help you, not hurt you.
Everyday life contains small amounts of stress, which are not dangerous to your health. The stress of hearing your alarm go off is what gets you out of bed in the morning, for example. This stress is short-lived (the alarm only goes off for a few seconds), and productive (you get up and start your day).
Stress can become a problem; however, when you’re subjected to very high amounts of stress for very long periods.
Workplace stress, for example, can have terrible side effects for your health because you’re experiencing the difficulty of a stressful workplace while you’re at work, and probably feeling stressed about work when you come home, too.
While everyone has different triggers or past experiences that impact their stress levels, the most common stress sources are:
- Workplace stress. Long hours, impossible objectives, too much responsibility, workplace harassment, and a toxic work environment can cause workplace stress. The fear of losing your job, ruminating over work problems, and worrying about future workdays can also cause tremendous work stress even when you’re not at work.
- Life stress. Examples include the death or decline of a loved one, a relationship breakdown, or dealing with a chronic health problem (or caring for someone who is). Even happy events can cause stress, such as a marriage, purchasing a house, or a child’s birth.
- Emotional Stress. Worrying is incredibly stressful and is often a result of our attitudes and perceptions. For instance, some people believe the world to be a bad, dangerous place and live in constant fear of being the victim of crime, causing themselves unnecessary worry and stress.
While some stresses are immediate and unavoidable (like being chased or startled by a loud noise), there are many stressful situations that you can avoid, such as:
- Reliving Stressful Situations: Playing an unpleasant event over in your mind causes you to re-experience the same stress repeatedly. While it can be difficult, it’s important to let negative memories go. (Feel free to replay those positive ones, though! Science shows that reliving positive memories can help reduce stress and even reverse depression)
- Assuming the Worst: Overly pessimistic thinking is terrible for your mental health. Worrying about things you can’t control only results in unnecessary stress, and assuming a bad outcome is linked with higher levels of anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, heart disease, and sleep problems.
- Over-engaging with Social Media: Whether you’re a lurker or an oversharer on social media, you can become stressed viewing posts that upset you, perhaps because you don’t agree with the content (like political posts), or the posts make you feel bad about yourself (like pictures of friends on vacation while you’re stuck at work). Set boundaries and limit your time online to avoid getting worked up about what people post on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.
- Poor Time Management: Constant tardiness, running out the door at the last minute, and worrying about being late and unprepared will cause stress and can also exacerbate other types of stress (i.e., work stress). Likewise, procrastinating is just “saving up stress for later, but paying with interest,” as you’ll likely be even more stressed and frustrated when you’re short on time.
Short-Term and Long-Term Effects on the Body
There are both short-term and long-term responses to stress. Short term effects come on quickly and dissipate reasonably soon as well, usually after time or when the stressful stimuli stop. Long term effects aren’t nearly as noticeable as short term effects, but they’re generally much more harmful.
Short Term Effects of Stress
Short term stressors result in you experiencing the “fight or flight” response, such as:
– a racing heartbeat and increased blood pressure; you can feel your heart pounding
– sweating, including clammy palms
– shortness of breath or hyperventilating
– sudden change in appetite
– dry mouth
– trembling or shaking
– grinding or clenching teeth
– dizziness, confusion, or trouble focusing
– tense, twitching muscles
– upset stomach, diarrhea, or constipation
– headache or migraine
– difficulty sleeping
– chest pain
These defense mechanisms are courtesy of your sympathetic nervous system and evolved to help you flee danger. However, your nervous system is not quite as evolved as the stresses you face every day. It can’t tell the difference between a balloon mortgage payment or a hungry lion, which is why you may feel the same sensations at your bank statement that you would at a changing bear.
Long Term Effects of Stress
You’ll probably notice a sudden upset stomach, sweaty palms, and dry mouth. What you may not see is a growing ulcer, hypertension, or worsening depression.
While short term stress is unpleasant, it’s short term unpleasantness is designed to inspire action. However, long-term stress is such a tremendous health problem because it worsens many other health problems.
Long term side effects of stress include:
- Chronic muscle pain from tense muscles, especially in the back and shoulders
- Migraines or constant tension headaches
- Panic attack disorder
- High blood pressure, causing a stroke, hypertension, or a heart attack
- Trouble sleeping
- Memory loss, both short term and long term
- Sexual problems, like loss of desire or premature ejaculation
- Irregular menstrual cycles in women
- Skin problems, like acne, psoriasis, or hair loss
- Worsening ulcers or digestive problems like irritable bowel disease
- Mental health problems like anxiety, depression, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
- Eating disorders, ranging from anorexia and bulimia to overeating and obesity
How to Manage Stress
You won’t remove stress from your life altogether, but you can learn to manage it. When you know how to manage your stress, you’ll lead a healthier and happier life.
It’s important to keep a positive attitude and come to terms with things that you can’t change. If you are a Type-A personality, learn to let go and remember that becoming angry or defensive just leads to more stress.
Several techniques can help you relax. Exercises such as yoga, meditation, deep breathing exercises, and Tai Chi return balance to your body and quiet the mind.
Regular exercise is one of the best ways to counteract the harmful physical side effects of stress and to help your body prepare to deal with stress. Exercise also releases endorphins, which can elevate your mood and reduce stress levels.
Eating healthy gives your body the nutrition it needs to cope with stress and tackle your daily life. A regular eating schedule (especially coupled with a regular sleeping and waking schedule) can help mitigate sleep disturbances caused by stress.
Managing your time can reduce day-to-day stress, such as the stress caused by running late or procrastinating. Limiting your time on social media is also important if it is a stressor, and be aware that looking at screens (like your phone, tablet, laptop, or TV) before bed can disturb your sleep cycle.
Take Care of Yourself
If you lead a stressful life, as many do, it’s even more important to prioritize self-care. Set limits and learn how to turn down requests that will cause you stress. Make time for interest and hobbies outside of work and family responsibilities.
Remember that your body needs time to heal after stressful events, so make sure that you get enough rest, take a day off when you need it, and use your vacation time.
If you have a lot of stress in your life, you may be more susceptible to substance use disorders like drug and alcohol addiction. If you feel that stress causes you to drink or use illicit substances as a coping mechanism, find support. Spend time with those you love and consider counseling to work through your feelings.
Your Health Comes First
At CityHealth Urgent Care, we care about your health just as much as you do, and that includes helping you manage the effects of stress.
If you are concerned about the impact stress has on your health, or fear you’re suffering from stress-related health issues like ulcers, heart problems, headaches, or worsening chronic health issues, make an appointment or book a virtual visit today.