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How Stress Affects Your Health

Modern life is full of hassles and frustrations, deadlines and demands. Stress is a normal physical response to events or situations that make you feel threatened or out of balance in some way.

How stress affects your health: the stress response

When your body senses a threat, your nervous system responds by releasing stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. These stress hormones activate your fight-or-flight-or-freeze response and affect your body in several ways:

  • Your heart rate and breathing increase
  • Your blood pressure rises
  • Your muscles tighten
  • Your senses become sharper
  • Your breath quickens

In small doses, stress can help you perform under pressure. However, constant stress over longer periods of time keeps the cortisol levels high and can lead to emotional, behavioral, and physical symptoms. Too much cortisol flooding a body’s cells can lessen the cells' ability to protect themselves from disease, lengthen healing time of injuries, and impair mental reasoning.

What causes stress?

Anything that puts high demands on you can be stressful, whether you think of it as negative (such as an unreasonable work schedule) or positive (such as buying a house). Stress can’t be avoided. The important thing is to recognize when your stress levels are too high. Stress can creep up on you and eventually begin to feel normal. This is when it can do damage to your health.

Each of us handles stressors differently. One person may be terrified to speak in front of a group, and another may love the spotlight. Some thrive when the pressure is on and deadlines are approaching, and others become frozen and overwhelmed.

Common causes of stress are:

External Stressors Internal Stressors
Major life changes Chronic worry
Work or school demands All-or-nothing attitude
Relationship difficulties Pessimism
Financial issues Negative self-talk
Children and family issues Unrealistic expectations
Being too busy Lack of flexibility in thinking

Below are some common signs of stress that you might recognize.  

Stress Symptoms

Physical Mental Behavioral
Getting headaches often Extreme anxiety, worry, or guilt Loss of interest in appearance
Neck or back pain or spasms Increased anger or annoyance Nervous habits
Dizziness or lightheadedness Depression or wild mood swings Overreacting to minor annoyances
Sweating or clamminess Trouble concentrating Increased number of minor accidents
Getting infections or colds often Trouble learning new information Obsessive or nervous behavior
Unexplained rashes Forgetfulness or confusion Reduced work productivity
Heartburn Feeling overwhelmed Lies or excuses to cover up poor work
Stomach pain or nausea Crying often Quick or mumbled speech
Constipation or diarrhea Feeling alone or worthless Extreme defensiveness
Sudden, life-threatening panic attacks Increased moodiness or edginess Problems communicating
Shortness of breath Trouble making decisions Withdrawing socially
Lack of sexual desire or performance Increased smoking, drinking, or drug use
Increased or decreased appetite Extreme gambling or impulse buying
Insomnia or nightmares Weight gain or loss without trying
Feeling tired all the time

If any of the stress symptoms above are familiar, discover how you can help manage them.