Stress is everywhere. You may feel stress when disciplining your kids, during busy times at work, when managing your finances, or when coping with a challenging relationship. Stress is the body’s natural reaction to harmful situations, whether they’re real or imagined. And while a little stress is OK, in fact some stress is beneficial, too much stress can wear you down and contribute to many health problems.
The Stress Response
Your central nervous system (CNS) oversees your “fight or flight” response. In your brain, the hypothalamus tells the adrenal glands to release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones prepare your body to respond in an emergency, sending blood to your muscles, heart, and other important organs while simultaneously shutting down processes like digestion, reproduction, and higher levels of reasoning.
When the perceived fear is gone, the hypothalamus should tell all systems to go back to normal. If the CNS fails to return to normal, or if the stressor doesn’t go away, the stress response will continue. This leads to ongoing, chronic stress that can cause or worsen many serious health problems, including:
- Mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and personality disorder.
- Cardiovascular disease, including heart disease, high blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms, heart attacks, and strokes.
- Obesity and other eating disorders.
- Skin and hair problems, such as acne, psoriasis, and eczema, and permanent hair loss.
- Gastrointestinal problems, such as GERD, gastritis, ulcerative colitis, and irritable colon.
Anything from everyday responsibilities like work and family to serious events such as a new diagnosis, war, or the death of a loved one can trigger stress. Symptoms of chronic stress can be vague and may be like those caused by other medical conditions, so it is important to consult your doctor or a professional counselor who can help you identify sources of stress and learn new coping tools. Explore stress management strategies, such as:
- Getting regular physical activity. Watching television or playing video games may seem relaxing, they may increase stress over the long term.
- Practicing relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, yoga, or book yourself a massage or spa treatment.
- Taking care of yourself by getting plenty of sleep and eating a healthy, balanced diet. Avoid tobacco use, excess caffeine and alcohol, and the use of illegal substances.
- Delegating tasks to other people. Getting your kids to clean up or your partner to take over a household responsibility will lighten your load and allow more time for stress relieving activities you enjoy.
Recognizing stress symptoms may be harder than you think because people handle stress differently and triggers of stress can vary. Many of us are so accustomed to stress, we often don’t know we are stressed until we are at the breaking point. Taking small steps everyday to manage your stress will be beneficial to your health, so find something that brings you fun or relaxation and do more of it!