MD Insights: What does stress affect?
An MD’s perspective on chronic stress, its seriousness, and our ability to combat it:
First of all, what even is stress? When the body perceives a threat or demand, whether it’s the car in front of us unexpectedly breaking or an important deadline at work, its natural reaction is to trigger our body’s stress response. This response involves the release of stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline, that prepare the body for action. These hormones trigger immediate bodily changes, including increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, and heightened alertness.
When does stress become harmful? While stress can be extremely useful for navigating dangerous or pressing situations, our bodies are not meant to enter that state often, and certainly not remain in it for long periods of time. The stress response involves virtually every one of our bodily systems, and the frequency and duration of its activation can negatively affect every single one of them. This is why chronic stress can produce symptoms as varied as headaches, memory loss, substance abuse, social isolation, anxiety, and diarrhea just to name a few. Notice how these symptoms include emotional, physical, cognitive and behavioral impacts.
The cumulative effect of the physical and psychological impacts of chronic stress, built up over time, can cause bodily changes equivalent to accelerated aging. Yes, chronic stress can literally shorten your lifespan! Although it can be tempting to treat chronic stress as an unavoidable part of life, the growing research around its consequences has pushed me to more closely examine my own relationship with stress, and look for ways I can better manage it. Below, I discuss some of those methods.
Sometimes, the idea of ‘stress regulation’ can seem oversimplified for those who have lived with chronic stress. We think to ourselves,
“If my current life situation [work/ family/ health/ money, etc.] isn’t changing anytime soon, then my stress levels won’t be changing either.”
By thinking this, we take away our own power to bring positive change into our life, despite those stressors. As the saying goes, “you can’t direct the wind, but you can adjust your sails.” Here are some simple ways you can adjust your sails, taking those first steps toward a healthier relationship with stress, and ultimately, enabling yourself to face life’s challenges with more resilience:
- Identify your stressors. Research shows that simply recognizing to ourselves what is causing us stress, fear or pain significantly decreases the power of that stressor over our emotional state. Identifying and accepting your stressors brings them from the subconscious into the conscious, where you can more calmly analyze how to address or minimize them. I suggest writing them down, and asking yourself the following questions:
- “What here is out of my control?”
- “Where can I delegate or recieve help?”
- “How can I decrease my stress reaction to this?” (sharing with a friend, taking breaks, improving time management etc.)
- Keep moving! Although it seems basic, exercise has been shown again and again to be one of the best antidotes to stress. Movement does NOT have to be strenuous exercise. Any movement you can add to your day will have a positive impact on your physical and mental health.
- Seek professional help. Some stress stems from deeper wounds, seemingly unbreakable habits, or more serious health conditions. In these cases, asking for outside help can be your first step toward deeper healing. Therapy or counseling can provide valuable tools and guidance in managing stress and developing coping strategies.
Stress is an issue with many interconnecting parts. From what causes it and how it affects us to how we deal with it, each piece is linked to our past and present experiences, making it a complex issue for each person to understand fully in their unique context. If you have any other specific questions about the topic of stress, how it affects our bodies, or methods to manage it, let me know! See below to Ask Dr. Yost.
Dr. James Yost, Chief Medical Officer at CRH Healthcare
An Emory alum with 30 years of healthcare experience and 17 years as a practicing physician, Dr. Yost cares deeply about the patient experience, inside and outside our centers. Starting this year, Dr. Yost will be answering our patients’ most common questions through MD Insights, with practical and trustworthy advice.
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