It’s often said that stress is a silent killer—but what exactly is stress? It’s the physical and chemical reaction that our body starts when it believes it’s under attack. When we sense danger—either real or imagined—the body’s defenses get activated in a rapid, automatic process known as the fight-or-flight response.
Fight or flight is not only reserved for physical danger. Being chased by a bear will definitely put our body into a state of alarm but so will stress from other sources like family, friends, financial worries, or relationship issues. The difference between these two types of stress is time. The body can handle small amounts of stress for short periods of time. It cannot handle long-term stress.
Prolonged or permanent stress (without any breaks of relief or relaxation) can lead to long-lasting health problems. Here are some of the negative health effects of stress alongside some tips on what you can do to help combat it.
Why stress may be different for women
Studies have found that women differ from men not only in their emotional responses to stress. Acute and chronic stress may take a greater toll on a woman’s physical and mental health1. When reacting to stressors, the body releases hormones like cortisol, known to impact things like our immune system, digestive system, and skin1. Research has also shown that a woman’s cortisol response to psychological stress differs dramatically to that seen in men2.
Signs and symptoms of stress
Exhaustion is one of the primary symptoms of ongoing stress. It can cause you to feel weak, lethargic, sleepy, and lose all motivation to carry out even the simplest tasks. The symptoms of stress can show up in many different ways and although everyone reacts differently to stress, here are some common symptoms1:
- Upset stomach
- Elevated blood pressure
- Decreased or reduced libido
- An irregular menstrual cycle
- Acne breakouts
- Hair loss
- Problems sleeping
Your mental health
Emotional problems can also result from ongoing stress. It includes conditions like depression, panic attacks, or other forms of anxiety and worry1. Emotional problems are one of the biggest issues resulting from prolonged stress because they’re difficult to diagnose and sometimes difficult to treat. They can also turn into a vicious cycle of stress causing illness which itself leads to more stress.
Stress can undermine your health
Research suggests that stress also can bring on or worsen certain symptoms or diseases. Stress itself is linked to 6 of the leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide1. So although a small amount of stress may not be a problem, long-term stress can make any pre-existing health issues much worse.
Tips for reducing stress
Because modern day stress is primarily caused by our emotional and mental state of mind, the tips to reduce stress are centered around doing things to make you ‘feel’ less stressed out and help your body relax. The first step to tackling stress is always going to be to deal with the main cause of the stress itself—whatever that cause may be. But in addition to that, here are a few things you can do to help yourself out2:
- Keep a positive attitude and accept that there are events that you cannot control.
- Learn and practice relaxation techniques; try meditation, yoga, or tai-chi.
- Exercise regularly. Your body can fight stress better when fit.
- Improve your diet. Eat well-balanced meals, make sure you’re getting all your daily vitamins and minerals and skip the junk food.
- Set limits and say no to requests that would create excessive stress in your life.
- Find fun ways to relax.
- Rediscover your favorite hobbies and interests—ie. movies, painting, reading, hiking
- Seek out social support—keep in touch with family and friends. Sometimes it helps to have someone to talk to or just a friendly ear to listen.
- If you think your health is being compromised by stress then make an appointment to see your doctor.
1- The Cleveland Clinic Foundation. Stress. 02/05/2015. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/11874-stress
2- Kirschbaum, C., Wüst, S., & Hellhammer, D. (1992). Consistent sex differences in cortisol responses to psychological stress. Psychosomatic medicine, 54(6), 648-657. http://journals.lww.com/psychosomaticmedicine/Citation/1992/11000/Consistent_sex_differences_in_cortisol_responses.4.aspx