Why Stress Is Bad for Your Body (and Mind) and What to Do About It

Posted August 31, 2016

We’ve all heard people talk about being stressed out and most of us acknowledge feeling that way from time to time. Up to a point, stress is a normal part of life. But when stress becomes chronic, it can contribute to and even cause a host of health problems. In some situations stress can be an appropriate and even lifesaving response to events, according to the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH). For example, if you are faced with a car accident up ahead and have to quickly swerve to miss it, your body releases chemicals and hormones causing your pulse to quicken. You breathe faster, your muscles tense and your blood pressure goes up, too. Your brain uses more oxygen and increases activity so you react as fast as possible, with every part of your being aimed at survival.

In less dramatic situations, such as being called upon to present a speech, you can also feel stress reactions in your body — such as a faster heartbeat as your body releases hormones to heighten your attention. This normal stress response in a social or work situation typically passes quickly.

In the short term, being in a stressful situation can even boost your immune system, the NIMH notes. However, when you experience chronic stress from ongoing personal, work or health problems, your body’s stress response continues pumping out chemicals that can dampen your immune response and make you more susceptible to colds and other infections. And over time, if you don’t find a way to lower or cope with excessive stress in your life, you may experience a host of other stress-related physical and emotional problems.

It’s important to recognize common stress symptoms so you can find ways to manage them. Chronic stress impacts your body, your behavior and your emotions. Too much stress can be a factor in weight gain, and studies have shown people with unchecked stress are at increased risk for cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. In fact, about 70% of doctor visits and 80% of serious illnesses may be exacerbated by or linked to stress.

Common physical effects of chronic stress:

• Headaches

• Muscle aches and pains

• Difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep

• Changes in sex drive

• Fatigue

• Upset stomach

• Chest pain (Note: Never assume this is just stress and always have chest pain checked by your health care provider.)

Common effects of stress on behavior and mood:

• Anxiety and feeling restless

• Feeling overwhelmed and unable to focus

• Irritability and being quick to anger

• Depression

• Overeating

• Withdrawing from friends and social events

• Exercising less often

• Abusing alcohol or drugs

The good news: You can take control of stress. Learning to access what Herbert Benson, MD, professor of mind body medicine at Harvard Medical School, calls the “relaxation response” has been shown in multiple studies to reduce physical and emotional symptoms related to chronic stress.

A recent study by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Institute for Technology Assessment and the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine found that participants in a relaxation-response training program, who learned to use relaxation techniques such as meditation and yoga to reduce chronic stress, took far fewer trips to their health care providers for medical problems in the year following their training than in the preceding 12 months.

Tips from the NIMH to help you reduce or prevent the effects of chronic stress:

• Exercise regularly. Research shows just 30 minutes per day of gentle walking can help boost mood and reduce stress.

• Schedule regular times for healthy and relaxing activities. Read a book, watch a movie or take time out for a hobby to turn down the stress in your life.

• Explore stress-coping activities. Consider learning meditation, yoga, tai chi and other proven ways to turn on the relaxation response and turn down stress.

• Set priorities and learn when to say no. Decide what must be done, what can wait, and learn to turn down tasks and responsibilities if they make you feel overwhelmed.

• Take care of your physical and mental health. Talk to a mental health care provider if you are overwhelmed, have suicidal thoughts, or are using drugs or alcohol to cope. Contact your health care provider for existing or new health symptoms.

• Ask for help. Reach out to friends, family and community or religious organizations that can provide emotional and other support.

The NIHM’s stress fact sheet offers more information about stress and ways to cope when stress is chronic.