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A Look at How Stress Affects Your Life and Your Health


People say the word all the time—stress. “Too much stress!” we might say about an unpleasant situation. “That was stressful!”

We 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.

There 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 confronting you.

Chronic 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

It’s virtually impossible to list every health problem that experts believe stress can cause. But here are just some of them:

        Cardiovascular 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?


If 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 lemon.
  • 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.

In 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 health.

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.
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