How Does Stress Affect Health -
What Can We Do About It?

Asking how does stress affect health is a key step towards reducing stress and feeling better.

Understanding can lead to better choices and health.

Stress has a broad influence on mental, emotional and physical health.

When we feel angry, worried, anxious or stressed our physical bodies are also affected. They function differently. (This was demonstrated by Walter Cannon in his early research on stress.)

There is a powerful connection between mind and body.

You actually already know how stress affects your overall health. It's like the difference between feeling good and feeling bad.

Generally, when we are chronically stressed we feel a reduced sense of mental clarity, emotional happiness and physical well being.

How Does Stress Affect Health Specifically

Our bodies seem to have an innate wisdom. They have intricate mechanisms for maintaining balance and stability even in the midst of change. This is called homeostasis.

But sometimes, when the challenges of change overwhelm the body’s ability to maintain balance, then we have a stress response. It feels threatening. There may or may not be an actual external threat, but it feels or seems like that.

When the body feels threatened its innate wisdom reorders its priorities. Energy is moved away from some biological systems and moved into others – so it can better deal with the perceived emergency. This is sometimes called "fight or flight".

How does stress affect health?
Here are some of the ways:

  • Digestion and elimination are less
  • Immune system activity is less
  • Less energy goes into growth, repair and reproduction
  • Neurotransmitters – the chemical messengers in our brain shift to produce a heightened state of mental alertness.
  • Heart rate and blood pressure increase.
    (Heart disease and stress are very connected).
  • Muscle tension increases.
  • Hormonal system shifts. Increased adrenaline creates
    metabolic changes to access stored energy.

Short term, the stress response can be a normal and natural beneficial response. The body does this for survival.

However a chronic or habitual stress response can be damaging to our health.

Chronic stress can result in increased risk of many illnesses including heart disease, cancer, depression and obesity.

This is understandable since certain important biological systems, like the digestive system and the immune system, are no longer functioning well.

Some of the classic symptoms of being chronically stressed include:

  • Trouble sleeping
  • Headaches
  • Eating problems such as over eating or under eating
  • Emotional problems such as anger, anxiety, sadness and depression
  • Heart and cardiovascular problems such as high blood pressure, abnormal heartbeat and heart attack
  • Digestive upsets such as cramps, diarrhea, irritable bowel or constipation
  • Aches and pains
  • Skin problems like hives or itchy rashes

Stress Relief Solutions

Having an understanding of how does stress affect health may help motivate us to seek stress relief.

Fortunately there are effective ways to reduce chronic stress.

Some of the biggest causes of stress don’t need to be so big.
Our attitudes and expectations play a big role in producing unnecessary stress. Philosopher and Psychologist William James said it well--- “the greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another”.

Psychiatrist Gerald Jampolsky said it this way---“It’s not the situation that’s causing your stress, it’s your thoughts and you can change that right here and now. You can choose to be peaceful right here and now. Peace is a choice, and it has nothing to do with what other people do or think”.

Emotional Stress Reducers can often provide soothing practical ways to reduce chronic stress.

We can also enhance stress prevention through healthy lifestyle choices.

For more stress relief ideas visit Gentle Stress Relief home page.

Burns, Steven L., M.D. 1989-2007. How to Survive Unbearable Stress.

Lasater, Judith, PH.D., P.T. 1995. Relax and Renew. Berkeley, California: Rodmell Press

"Stress System Malfunction Could Lead to Serious, Life Threatening Disease." News Release from National Institutes of Health, NIH Backgrounder. 2002. 

Office on Women's Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2005. "Stress and Your Health. "

"Finding Quotations was never this Easy!". 1999-2006.

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