July 3, 2014

Stress: Its Damaging Effects on Our Bodies and Strategies to Reduce It

The negative impact of stress on human bodies and minds is a regular healthcare topic. It’s no wonder: stress can make us sick and even shorten our lives.

Stress is a big problems for millions of Americans. According to the WebMD website (one of my regular, trusty sources):
  • 43% of all adults suffer adverse health effects from stress.
  • 75-90% of all doctor’s office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints.
  • The Occupational Safety and Health Organization (OSHA) declared stress a workplace hazard. Stress costs American industry more than $300B – yes, billion – every year.
  • 50% of emotional disorders last a lifetime, often due to chronic, untreated stress reactions. 
People frequently use tobacco, alcohol, and drugs to relieve stress. Unfortunately, those substances only exacerbate the problem by keeping the body in a stressed state.

Stress is normal -- the body’s reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response. And stress can be good, too; it keeps us alert, motivates us to some action, and keeps us from harm.

But when stress-causing challenges and changes do not abate, when we cannot resolve them, and when there is no relief from them, the sufferer typically develops distress, a very negative stress reaction. Distress can cause a wide range of very real physical symptoms and problems.
 
Often, we suffer physical reactions to stress without knowing their cause. As outlined in a recent article  on the website Everyday Health, the most common stress-caused ailments include:
  • Frequent headaches. Clenching your jaw; tensing your facial, neck, or shoulder muscles; or grinding your teeth are physical responses to stress that could cause head pain. 
  • Body aches or tension. When you are exposed to stress, your sympathetic nervous system activates the fight-or-flight response. Blood is then sent to major muscle groups that increase muscle tension and prepare you to fight or flee a situation. If you do not take any action, however, muscles may stay tight and become sore or painful. 
  • Restlessness, tapping your foot or hand. Stress or anxiety can cause this common nervous habit.
  • Gastrointestinal distress. For some people, the gut may be a barometer of extreme stress, leading to diarrhea, constipation, nausea, or upset stomach.
  • Acne. Stress increases levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and increased cortisol can contribute to acne. 
  • Eczema. Stress and anxiety increase inflammation of the skin, which can trigger or worsen eczema.
  • Increased sweating. We sweat when stressed, thanks to hormones such as adrenaline, which is involved in the fight-or-flight reaction.
  • Insomnia, nightmares, sleepwalking, or disturbed sleep.Chronic stress increases rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and decreases slow-wave or deep sleep, disrupting cell and body maintenance and repair.
  • Frequent illnesses. Stress promotes overproduction of hormones that regulate your immune system and affects your ability to produce the white blood cells that fight infection, weakening immunity and increasing susceptibility to illness.
  • Decreased interest in sex, sexual arousal problems, reduced fertility. Stress inhibits gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), the body’s main sex hormone, which can lead to reduced sperm count, ovulation, and sexual activity.
  • Panic attacks. Stress causes your baseline arousal level to be higher than typical — closer to the level at which people begin to experience panic attacks  — which may increase your likelihood of experiencing a panic attack.
  • Mood and emotions. Stress or anxiety also can affect your mood and make it more difficult to regulate emotions, causing irritability or mood swings. People who are stressed or anxious may have difficulties with concentration, decision-making, and memory.
  • Elevated blood pressure. Stress raises blood pressure and can cause chest pains.
So, What Can We Do?
That same article in Everyday Health outlined some strategies to reduce stress and the physical problems it creates. I was interested to see that meditation – part of my middle-of-the-night "quiet hour" – appears at the top of the list:
  • Mind-body practices, such as mindfulness, meditation, and yoga. 
  • Exercise, like walking, running, or other aerobic physical activity
  • Relaxation techniques, including breathing exercises and muscle relaxation.
That article suggests a next step:
But if your stress or anxiety is chronic and interferes with your daily life, you may have an anxiety disorder. Most people find significant improvement with professional care, and you may benefit from the assistance of a trained mental health professional. Anxiety and related disorders can be treated by a wide range of health care providers, including psychologists, psychiatrists, clinical social workers, and psychiatric nurses.

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