Stress and Health: How Stress Affects Your Health

Our daily lives are full of stressors both good and bad. Stress is a normal physical response your body uses to protect itself from challenges life throws at it each day. Our daily lives have become complex with multitasking becoming a norm and constant sensory input bombarding us.

How Stress Affects Your Health: The Stress Response

When your body senses a threat, the stress response kicks in and releases a hormone called cortisol, which activates our fight-or-flight-or-freeze response. The effects of cortisol are felt in a wide range of body systems. Your heart rate and breathing increase, blood pressure rises, and muscles tighten. 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.

Always be sure to check with your health care provider before beginning any activity plan or increasing your activity.

It always helps to ask:

  • What activities are right for me?
  • How much should I do each day?
  • How many days a week?

It's also important to ask him or her what your target heart rate is to help determine what exercise intensity is appropriate for you.

What Causes Stress

Stress affects each of us in different ways, so it's important for you to recognize the things that affect you most and be aware of how easily stress can not only creep up on you but also become a familiar part of your life without you realizing it. 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
Overbooked schedules Lack of flexibility in thinking

Review this list of common stress symptoms and see if you spot any familiar issues.

Stress Symptoms

Physical Mental Behavioral
Frequent headaches Excessive anxiety, worry, or guilt Loss of interest in appearance
Neck or back pain or spasms Increased anger or frustration Nervous habits
Dizziness or lightheadedness Depression or wild mood swings Overreaction to petty annoyances
Sweating or clamminess Difficulty concentrating Increased number of minor accidents
Frequent infections or colds Trouble learning new information Obsessive or compulsive 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 frequently Rapid or mumbled speech
Constipation or diarrhea Feelings of loneliness or worthlessness Excessive defensiveness
Sudden panic attacks Increased irritability or edginess Problems communicating
Shortness of breath Difficulty making decisions Social withdrawal and isolation
Lack of sexual desire or performance Increased smoking, drinking, or drug-use
Increased or decreased appetite Excessive gambling or impulse buying
Insomnia or nightmares Weight gain or loss without diet
Constant tiredness or fatigue

Handling Your Stressors

Knowing what triggers affect you most and finding ways to avoid or handle those can help to give you a more balanced lifestyle and improve your health. The good news is that there are steps you can take to reduce and manage the stressors in your life. Each of us is unique, so try several techniques, both long and short term, to determine the best combination for you.

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