Dr. Tim Martin shares his perspective on the stress-health connection from his years of experience as a primary care physician and wellness champion.
The Stress-Health Connection
“It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.”
Lou Holtz, former football coach
Everyone has stress. It’s a normal response to difficult situations and it has a purpose. Without stress, your body wouldn’t react to danger in a way that guides you to safety (like avoiding bears or snakes). But living in a high-stress state most or all of time is not productive and is harmful to your health. It is crucial to manage your stress-health for better quality of life.
Signs of Stress
When stressful events occur, stress hormones, like cortisol, are activated when your hypothalamus, a part of your brain, sends a message to your body to get ready for action.
Acute, in-the-moment stress comes on fast, such as when you’re late for an important meeting, you get a flat tire or you burn the meal you made for dinner guests.
Signs for short-term stress include:
- Increased heart rate
- Increased perspiration
- Tense muscles
- Changes in breathing
When the stressful incident is over, the stress also dissipates. The impact to your health and well-being is negligible. Your body is equipped to manage temporary stress and even leverages it for an advantage, such as performing well in a job interview. However, the kind of stress that sticks with you for long periods of time can cause health problems or exacerbate existing conditions.
You may suffer from chronic stress if you are going through a time of grief, a divorce, a job loss, caring for a seriously ill family member or any other long-term situation that triggers a stress response. Some people may stay in a chronic stress state because of the way they cope with life’s challenges.
Signs of chronic stress include the same signs of short-term stress, but also include ongoing concerns, such as:
- Insomnia and fatigue
- Weakened immune system
- Depression and mental health disorders
- Aches and pains from chronically tensed muscles
- Gastrointestinal problems (heartburn, nausea, change in bowel movements)
- Fertility, menstruation and sexual difficulties
- High blood sugar
- High blood pressure
- Increased risk of heart attack
Chronic stress impacts every system in your body. We are not designed to be in a perpetual state of stress with a constant flow of cortisol. Chronic stress is stealthy in that it can go undetected for some time before ill effects are evident. If you are having any health issues, evaluate your stress level as a first step in the healing process.
De-stressing: A Daily Priority
The challenges of life, both small and large, are many and frequent. Some circumstances are out of our control, but we can lessen negative health consequences through our response to these circumstances.
As every day brings some level of stress, we must practice daily de-stressing. Use a variety of strategies to manage stress-health and keep stress from taking up permanent residence in your mind and body.
- Social support: Cultivate your relationships with family and friends. Talking it out can work wonders.
- Regular exercise: Physical activity is very effective in alleviating stress.
- Healthy habits: Eating healthy foods and staying active position your body to better combat stress.
- Sleep schedule: Getting adequate sleep keeps your mind and body ready to manage daily stressors.
- Relaxation: Meditation, prayer, deep breathing, yoga and massage all diminish daily stress.
- Laughter and recreation: Having fun and participating in hobbies will shift your stress into low gear.
- Beware of harmful patterns: Avoid using alcohol, tobacco, drugs or food to cope with stress. It usually backfires.
- Seek professional help: Getting fresh perspective from a trained mental health provider can help you through a tough season.
Staying aware of your response to upsetting situations will help prevent stress from getting a stronghold. Managing the side effects of stress is a lifelong journey, and you can start today!