Everyone gets stressed sometimes (or often times), especially in our busy-obsessed culture. Just look at the latest Stress in America report from the American Psychological Association, which found that more adults are dealing with extreme levels of tension than ever before. And those levels continue to climb. What’s worse: Not only are we more stressed, but we’re also not dealing with it. One in five people say they don’t think they’re doing enough to manage their anxiety.
While you probably know this constant state of stress isn’t good for you, you may not realize the exact toll it’s taking on your body. Failing to snag a few minutes each day to zone out — or to exercise, chat with friends and family or just devote time to hobbies you love — can seriously harm your health.
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Stressed Out? It’s Not Just You
While experts stress (pun intended!) that everyone has a different tolerance level for tension, prolonged anxiousness isn’t good for anyone. Read on to find out how stress can affect your physical well-being in a day, a week and beyond.
Your Body After… One Stressful Experience
When you first get that ping of panic from your boss or find out you have another errand added to your never-ending day, your body releases a hormone called cortisol. Despite this hormone often getting a bad rap, its presence isn’t always negative. “Low levels of stress that happen on an isolated basis can actually help us perform better,” says Stephanie S. Smith, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist. “For example, the stress of an upcoming test or game can actually make us more focused and attentive to the task at hand.”
“At a certain point…stress stops being helpful and starts affecting your ability to function normally.”
Athletes are a prime example of stress as a motivating force, says Asim Shah, MD, a professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Baylor College of Medicine. “You’re stressed because you’re about to participate in a competition, but because of that stress, you work hard to do well.” That can help a basketball player step up and hit a game-winning shot, for example, or a runner make it to the finish line a little faster. It can even help you nail a business presentation.
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Your Body After… A Series of Stressful Days
At a certain point — a threshold that varies from person to person — stress stops being helpful and starts affecting your ability to function normally. The reason: A bout of stress flips the “on” switch in your sympathetic nervous system, resulting in your body going into “fight or flight” mode. This triggers your adrenal glands to release the hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. The more you produce cortisol, the more it affects all of your organs and body systems — this time in a negative way. The “fight or flight” response also causes your liver to release sugar in your bloodstream and makes your heart beat rapidly.
Your body can’t stay in this alert state for long without consequences. In fact, it can lead to anything from decreased immunity to acne to weight gain, says Shanna Levine, MD, instructor of internal medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
Even very early signs of stress (yup, the “good” kind, too) involve fatigue, irritability and sleep disturbances. (Who hasn’t had trouble catching zzz’s the night before a job interview?) You’ll know your stress has become more harmful when it starts to interfere with your day-to-day activities, says Shah. That could mean you can’t concentrate at work or you’re having trouble maintaining relationships. If you notice this happening, take it as seriously as an illness, with your prescription being some zen time.
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Your Body… If You Experience Long-Term High Stress
If your stress levels remain high — say, if you experience a traumatic event, like a natural disaster — your body secretes more cortisol. This can sometimes manifest itself as a chronic illness, says Levine. “Long term, you can have hair loss, bone loss, poor wound healing or even stomach ulcers, diabetes from hormone dysregulation and insulin resistance,” she says. “To be constantly stressed is very, very detrimental to one’s health, but unfortunately it’s very, very common in our society.”
If that doesn’t make you want to relax, know that people who experience chronic stress don’t just suffer from a higher risk of even more anxiety, but they’re also more prone to other mental illnesses, including depression, notes Smith.
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How to Squash the Stress Cycle — For Good
While it may seem appealing to blow off some steam by having a few glasses of wine or indulging in some retail therapy, Smith cautions against it. “Those habits might manage stress in the moment, but they’ll just create more stress in the hours, days or weeks afterward,” she says.
“Look for your unique tension triggers and find ways to avoid or alter them.”
A more helpful tactic is to look for your unique tension triggers and find ways to avoid or alter them. “Whether that’s a friend, a partner or something going on at work, we can all identify things that constantly cause stress, making it detrimental to our health,” says Levine.
You may not always be able to avoid the trigger entirely, but find a strategy for making it less taxing, says Levine. For instance, if chatting with your mom can make you tense, text her more often. That gives you time to pause before reacting angrily to things she says. And if nothing else, try reframing the way you look at your stressors. “A lot of things tend to be out of our control, so it’s always a good idea to realize you’re doing the best you can with the situation,” says Levine.
Make Time for Anti-Stress Activities
Most of us practice good stress-management tactics on a daily basis — like exercising or socializing with friends, says Smith. But ironically, we forget to invest time in these activities when we’re feeling overwhelmed.
Shah refers to the habits that keep us centered as the “seven E’s:” exercising, expressing your feelings (rather than keeping them bottled up), enjoying life by making time for your interests, exploring the world around you, engaging with others, energizing by maintaining sound sleep habits and eating healthy foods.
Even if you think you perform better when stressed, put the “seven E’s” into practice. Because, as Levine says, “no one truly thrives off of persistent, chronic stress — that is a misnomer.” A dose of calm will work well as part of your preventative medicine routine.