A Look at How Stress Affects Your Life and Your Health
say the word all the time—stress. “Too much stress!” we might say about an
unpleasant situation. “That was stressful!”
toss the word around a lot, and often give it very little thought. But stress
isn’t simply an easy description of something that makes us feel nervous or
tense. It’s an actual biological response that causes a cascade of events
in the body.
are two kinds of stress—chronic and acute. Acute stress occurs when you’re
in a dangerous situation. It’s a quick response that signals your body to
initiate a series of reactions that allow you to act fast. Hormones—adrenaline
and cortisol—flood your system to increase blood pressure, heart rate and
breathing rate. Now you’re better able to run fast or fight the danger that’s
stress, on the other hand, is the result of the everyday difficulties of life—problems
at work or with relationships, schedules that leave no room for rest, financial
worries, difficulties balancing child rearing and career, etc. When you’re
under this constant stress, your body still has the same stress response as
it does to acute stress, it’s just that the response continues over a long
period of time.
Stress can cause a multitude of health problems
virtually impossible to list every health problem that experts believe stress
can cause. But here are just some of them:
problems. The changes in heart rate put a heavy demand on your cardiovascular
system and increase your risk of cardiovascular disease and even death. Increases
in blood pressure can damage the lining of the artery walls, which can lead
to the development of atherosclerosis, or a buildup of plaque that decreases
blood flow. Your risk of stroke increases as well.
► Increased risk of infections. Constant stress seems to decrease the ability of your
immune system to fight off infection. Studies have shown that people under
chronic stress have lower counts of infection-fighting white blood cells.
► Increase in flare-ups of autoimmune disorder
episodes. It only makes sense that if stress affects your immune system,
it can have an impact on the way an autoimmune disorder affects you. Researchers
believe that stress may cause flare-ups for people who have eczema, rheumatoid
arthritis, multiples sclerosis and lupus.
► Increase in gastrointestinal problems.
Chronic stress can irritate the intestines, causing diarrhea,
constipation, cramping or bloating. It can worsen irritable bowel syndrome.
► Increase in diabetes risk. Researchers believe that chronic stress may cause the
body to use insulin less efficiently, a condition called insulin resistance.
This is generally a precursor to diabetes.
What to do about stress in your life?
you want to reduce the stress in your day-to-day existence, it takes a conscious
effort to make changes. Adjustments in your lifestyle, the addition of some
kind of daily relaxation practice, a change in your approach to work and relationships—all
of these, over time, can help reduce your stress levels. Here are some examples
of things you can do:
Sit quietly for 10 or 20 minutes per day (longer
if you choose) and concentrate on your breath as it goes in and out. This
is a simple way to relax your mind and body.
Consider doing yoga or other stretching or meditative
exercises, including t’ai chi, qigong or Pilates.
Spend more time with friends. Routine get-togethers are relaxing and
help you forget about the worries of your day.
- Take a good look at your work situation. Studies
have shown that being a workaholic can have a negative impact on your family
life, and that it can decrease your satisfaction with life in general. Do
you work long hours every day? What can you do to change that? Can you talk
with your supervisor and co-workers to see whether work flow can be adjusted?
- Spend time outside when possible. During the warmer
months, when you get home from work, take a few moments, maybe a half hour,
to unwind outside with a glass of water and a sprig of mint or slice of
- Find the humor in things whenever you can. Laughing
is a great way to decrease feelings of stress.
- Take a hot bath on a regular basis. When you do
this, you can easily imagine the stress slipping away from your body.
general, take a look at the pace of your life and ask yourself whether there’s
room to calm down. Chances are, if you really look, you’ll find ways to make
life more enjoyable and decrease that stress that can wreak havoc on your
The Center for Healthy Aging; National Institutes of Mental Health; F. Pashkow and C. Libov. The Women’s Heart Book. Hyperion, New York, New York, 10023, 2001.