Most people have to deal with stress on a regular basis. But do you know what it's really doing to your body? Learn more about the reasons behind feeling stressed as well as common strategies to not let the stress get to you.
From small hassles, like trips to the Department of Motor Vehicles, to major events, such as wars, the threat of terrorist attacks and constant fear of losing our jobs, modern life presents us with stressors that can be both prolonged and difficult to escape. These are called chronic, or long-term, stressors. Now, not all stress is bad. For example, lifting weights puts stress on your muscles but can improve your overall health. Stress that has good effects is known as eustress. The prefix 'eu' means good. Bad stress, by contrast, is known as distress. And distress, especially chronic distress, can be harmful to your health. In this segment, we'll explore potential negative health effects of chronic stress and also coping mechanisms.
First, let's talk about the work of a scientist named Hans Seyle. Seyle was one of the first to study the effects of long-term stress. He theorized about what he called general adaptation syndrome. It describes three stages in reaction to long-term stress: alarm, resistance and exhaustion. Alarm is the stage in which stress hormones are released along the HPA-axis. Resistance is a stage during which the body tries to adapt to long-term stress and to return to pre-alarmed functioning. But when the stressor presents itself for a long time, our stress responses remain activated, and so it's difficult for our bodies to return to non-stressed states. The final stage is exhaustion, which can be both physical and mental. This stage can lead to illness, and ultimately, even death.
A major difference between responses to long-term and short-term stress is that, with long-term stress, the body cannot return to its pre-stressed state because levels of stress hormones, especially cortisol, remain elevated.
Chronic Stress is known to have negative health effects. They include:
- Weakened immune system
- Damage to DNA, which means our cells age faster than they otherwise might. A common example of this is greying hair.
Stress really can cause it, because it damages the cells responsible for hair color.
- Heightened risk for heart disease
- There are multiple reasons why stress increases your risk for heart disease. First, cortisol, the stress hormone released by adrenal glands, causes plaque buildup in the arteries. Stress also leads to higher blood pressure.
So, now that we've talked about some of the health risks associated with chronic stress, let's talk about some coping strategies. Although stress cannot be completely avoided, there are Coping Methods for Long-Term Stress that can reduce its negative effects.
- First, it's important to identify what the stressors in your life even are. It might be helpful to keep a journal of stressors, as well as your responses to them. Maladaptive responses include substance abuse,unhealthy eating habits and withdrawal from activities, friends, and family.
Even if these techniques provide temporary relief, they can intensify the effects of stress over the long run and leave us even less equipped to deal with stress. Instead of resorting to unhealthy habits, once you've identified your stressors, you can try to avoid or change the stressor. But this is not always possible. If, say, you're stressed because one of your parents is suffering from a serious illness, that's a stressor that cannot be readily eliminated. So, when you cannot affect the stressor, then try to change your reaction to it! Try to reframe the situation in a more positive light, modify your standards when you're being too perfectionistic, accept that some things are beyond your control and express and share, rather than ignore and repress your feelings.
To summarize, chronic, or long-term, stress can cause negative health effects, including weakened immune system, damaged DNA and heightened risk for heart disease. There are coping mechanisms for chronic stress, which include avoiding or changing the stressor, and changing your reaction to the stressor by techniques including reframing and expressing your feelings.