How Stress Affects Your Physical Health (And Why You Need to Manage It)
You’ve probably heard that stress is bad for you. For example, you might have come across claims that stress leads to cardiovascular disease.
But what exactly is stress? How does stress impact the body? More importantly, is all stress bad for us, and how can we manage it?
Let’s dive in to answer these and other questions.
What Is Stress, Anyway?
Stress is a perfectly natural response to an external threat that challenges homeostasis. For example, by exposing yourself to extreme cold, your body experiences stress and makes an effort to adapt to it, so it causes minimal harm. Shivering, putting more clothes on, and seeking warmth are manifestations of stress.
Another example is being chased by a bear. You experience acute stress that sharpens your cognition, makes you stronger and improves your endurance. As a result, you can run much faster and longer, escaping the life-threatening situation.
The above are examples of acute stress. A situation arises, your body responds, and you escape danger. All of that is great.
The problem is chronic stress that lasts for a long time even if no immediate danger is present.
What is Chronic Stress And What Makes It Bad For Us?
Unlike acute stress that comes up, lasts for a bit, and goes away, chronic stress presents lasting feelings of pressure, anxiety, and overwhelm. You feel anxious, feel unable to control the situation, and are more likely to suffer from mental disorders, such as depression (1).
The primary issue with chronic stress is that the above effects can ruin your sleep and worsen your physical health. Common manifestations of chronic stress include:
- Hair loss (2)
- Unexplained aches
- Lack of appetite (3)
- Fatigue and muscle weakness
- Insomnia (4)
- Mood swings and antisocial behavior
- Brain fog, memory issues, and difficulty concentrating (5)
How Stress Impacts Your Physical Health
The brain is connected to every major system and organ in the body, including the:
- Endocrine system
- Immune system
- Cardiovascular system
Chronic stress arises in the brain, promoting a state of heightened alertness that takes its toll on your physical health. For example, according to research, chronic stress contributes to cardiovascular disease and early death (6). Other research suggests that people who suffer from chronic stress have a weaker immune defense and are more likely to get ill (7).
While feeling stressed might not seem that bad, it works in the background and can wreak havoc on our health.
Three Ways to Take Charge Of Stress And Keep It At Bay
Meditation is an ancient practice of slowing down, clearing your mind, and being present. Despite the mixed opinions today, meditation has proven itself to be an effective tactic in the battle against stress. Research shows that people who meditate are calmer, more present, and more fulfilled with their life (10, 11).
The best part about meditation is that you don’t need to do anything crazy to reap benefits. As little as ten minutes of meditation in the morning or evening is often enough.
2. Exercise Regularly
Physical activity is among the most beneficial things we can do to improve our health, boost productivity, and lead more peaceful lives. Regular exercise is beneficial for stress because it lets us blow off steam, become more resilient, flood ourselves with endorphins, and boost our mood (12, 13).
Like meditation, exercise can be a source of positive energy in a person’s life. While exercising, you can let go of repetitive thoughts and be in the moment, doing something good for yourself.
Plus, exercise is a great way to elevate your mental health and reduce the risk of disorders, such as anxiety or depression, both of which exacerbate symptoms of stress (14).
3. Learn to Let Go
A significant source of stress in many people’s lives today is the need to control everything: our circumstances, the people around us, and how life turns out.
While it’s essential to strive for independence, do good work, and chase goals, we must accept that it’s impossible to control everything. Some things will always be out of our control, and trying to change that will only lead to stress and health issues.
Similarly, it’s important to let go of old traumas or resentment toward people that have wronged us in the past. Sure, it’s easier said than done, but resentment breeds negativity, stagnation, and stress, which do nothing but ruin our health and quality of life.
4. Create a Relaxing Pre-Bed Routine
Creating a relaxing pre-bed routine is a great way to melt stress for two reasons. First, the relaxing routine can help you calm down and forget your worries for a while. Second, having a pre-bed routine is a great way to sleep better, further melting stress (15).
A pre-bed routine can consist of many activities, and you should develop one you enjoy following. Good examples of activities include:
- Taking a shower/bath
- Writing several good things that happened that day
- Reading a book
- Listen to some relaxing music
Ideally, your relaxing routine should make up the last hour before bed. In doing so, you can relax and make falling asleep more easily.