Our modern lifestyle is synonymous with stress. Our lives are so rushed that we rarely have the time to pause and acknowledge the stress we experience. Pretty much every area of our lives are a source of stress – from juggling our deadlines at work and completing household chores to meeting financial obligations and managing family responsibilities. Most of us just accept stress as inevitable which is why we don’t take steps to reduce our stress levels. However, stress doesn’t just affect our mental and emotional health as research shows that stress also affects our physical health.
How Chronic Stress Affects the Body
Impacts Heart Health
Chronic stress increases your risk of high blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms, heart attacks and heart disease. When you get stressed, your body releases a flood of the hormone cortisol which increases your heart rate and tenses your muscles. While the occasional stress response does not have a lasting impact on your health, chronic stress causes high levels of cortisol for prolonged periods. Research indicates that high levels of cortisol from long-term stress can increase blood pressure and the levels of blood cholesterol, triglycerides and blood sugar – the most common risk factors for heart disease. Stress also promotes the build-up of arterial plaque which limits blood flow and increases the risk of a heart attack.
Increases the Risk of Sexual Dysfunction
Sexual dysfunction is a common problem that affects approximately 31% of men and 43% of women in our country. Sexual dysfunction includes issues such as erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation in men and a lack of sexual desire, the inability to become aroused and the lack of orgasm in women. Erectile dysfunction is one of the most common sexual dysfunction problems as it affects about 18 million American men over the age of 20. Studies show that psychological factors such as stress are the most common cause of ED. Counseling, therapy and stress reduction methods can help to prevent and treat stress-related sexual dysfunction.
Triggers Skin and hair problems
Studies show that stress is closely associated with a variety of skin problems including acne, psoriasis and eczema. High stress increases the production of sebum which increases your risk of an acne breakout. Stress can also trigger an immune reaction which can result in autoimmune diseases such as alopecia and vitiligo. Stress and skin or hair problems are closely linked and can form a vicious cycle where stress triggers skin and hair problems that cause an individual further stress. Researchers found that there is a 30-40% incidence of psychiatric issues such as stress, anxiety and depression among dermatological patients.
Greatly increases the risk of Obesity and other Eating Disorders
The National Center for Health Statistics for 2015-2016 estimates that 39.8% of adults (20 years old and over) were obese while an additional 31.8% were overweight. Changes in eating habits play a key role in the obesity epidemic but the underlying cause for these dietary changes is stress. Studies show that chronic stress triggers the craving for “comfort foods” which are high in sugars and fats. This is why people with chronic stress are at a much higher risk of obesity and other eating disorders such as binge eating and bulimia nervosa.
Increases the Frequency and Intensity of Headaches
When you experience stress, your muscles tense up in anticipation. Chronic stress keeps your neck and scalp muscles tense for a prolonged period which can trigger a tension headache. According to health experts, tension headaches are the most common type of headache. Chronic stress can also increase your risk of a migraine headache. Unlike tension headaches (that are not debilitating), a migraine headaches is an intense throbbing pain that can be felt on one or both sides of the head. The pain from migraine headaches can be excruciating and last for 4-72 hours. Migraine headaches can also cause sensitivity to light and sound as well as nausea and vomiting.
Ways to overcome Chronic Stress
Although chronic stress can feel overwhelming, it’s not beyond your control. There’s a lot that you can do to lower stress levels naturally using a variety of techniques that are proven to help. These can include:
Studies show that acupuncture reduces stress over time which makes it invaluable in the treatment of chronic stress. Acupuncture stimulates the release of several hormones including oxytocin and serotonin which reduce stress responses, including anxiety. Specific acupuncture points provide greater stress relief and are used frequently by licensed practitioners. Acupuncture can also help to reverse the effects of chronic stress and have a positive effect on existing health problems such as hypertension.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
This is another stress reduction technique that is highly recommended as it can be used to consciously relax whenever you start to feel the pressure build. It involves tensing and relaxing specific muscles in the body in synchrony with your breathing.
Similar to progressive muscle relaxation and just as effective, deep breathing exercises promote both mental and physical relaxation within minutes, lowering your heart rate and blood pressure. The practice is recommended for coping with stress disorders and depression, as well as chronic pain.
There are several types of meditation and you can make a choice based on your preferences, the amount of time you have and what you intend to get out of your meditation sessions. It really doesn’t matter what type of meditation you take up, as any form of meditation will help. The practice is known to provide immediate stress relief and also helps build resilience against stress, allowing you to cope more efficiently with difficult situations.
Stress can have a severe impact on our overall health which is why we can’t afford to simply ignore this problem and hope it goes away. It is estimated that up to 90% of all visits to primary care physicians are for stress-related complaints. In addition to stress reduction techniques, you can also make changes to your lifestyle that are known to promote relaxation and make you less vulnerable to the effects of stress. Physical activity would top the list, as this is one of the best ways to get a rush of endorphins, helping counter the effects of stress. Reducing your stress levels will increase your resilience so that you can overcome life’s challenges allowing you to lead a happy, productive and fulfilling life.
Author Bio -Anita Fernandes has been writing extensively on mental health and wellness for over a decade. She has expertise in nutrition, fitness, public health, and weight loss and has contributed content to a variety of leading digital health publishers. Anita has a unique perspective on healthy living and lifestyle, as she has battled and overcome eating disorders and obesity. She shares her experiences in an effort to help others overcome the physical and mental health problems that can sometimes seem insurmountable.
Rebecca M H Kitzerow is a Licensed Acupuncturist practicing in La Center, Washington. With over a decade of experience she has won 10 Nattie consumer choice awards from Natural Awakenings Magazine since 2014.