Did you know, over 73 percent of the US population regularly experience physical symptoms and mental effects of stress? (1) What was once considered a response to an unexpected situation or demand; it has now become an integral part of our everyday life.
What is stress exactly?
Imagine being stuck in traffic and getting late for a meeting, or forgetting to learn an important chapter before the exam. That is when a tiny part of our brain known as the hypothalamus orders to release stress hormones.
Every time we are surrounded by danger (real/imagined), our body’s defense kicks in, switching on the fight-flight reaction.
This reaction brings in the adrenaline, sharpens the senses, tightens the muscles, and helps us remain energetic till the situation is managed.
Is it really a villain?
Contrary to the popular belief we don’t need to avoid all the stress. In fact, we need a healthy dose of cortisol to go through our daily routine and finish various everyday tasks – like waking up in the morning, focusing on the road while driving, giving a presentation at work, and teaching kids. It helps us perform at our optimum level, meet challenges, learn, and remember new things.
The problem starts when the stress levels stop fluctuating and the stress hormone – cortisol remains constantly on the higher side. It starts hampering your physical and mental health and eventually your job, personal life, and everything else around you.
While it is impossible to avoid stress altogether, knowing its physical symptoms, signs, and mental effects can help in its treatment.
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How do I know I am stressed?
Everyone reacts to stress differently and hence there can’t be any fixed symptoms. Some of the most common stress markers are –
- Low energy
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Avoiding people
- Dry mouth
- Flutters in chest
- Inability to focus
Some of the most common stress magnets are –
- Major life changes
- Constantly rushing to meet work demands
- Personal life problems
- Money issues
- Children and family (or lack of them)
- Being busy all the time
What will chronic stress do to your mind and body?
- Eats into mental health – According to a study conducted by the researchers from the University of California, people with constant stress are more prone to anxiety, mood swings, and depression. Excessive cortisol decreases the production of neurons and affects the hippocampus which is responsible for learning, memory, and emotions. And over a prolonged period of time it affects your body and mind, hampers decision-making skills, communication abilities, metabolism, memory, and invites several mental disorders.
- Weakens the heart – Heart attack is one of the leading reasons for deaths in the United States (3). And one of the core reasons for a heart attack is chronic stress. Stress can lead to problems like overeating, excessive drinking, smoking, anxiety, hypertension, asthma, and an increased level of cholesterol. All of these, over a period of time, weakens the heart and damages the artery walls making them more prone to strokes.
- Lowers libido – Stress is known to be one of the biggest bedroom mood spoilers. Excessive production of stress hormones affects the production of the reproductive hormone – Gonadotropin. It causes problems like erectile dysfunction, low sex drive, and infertility. It is especially harsh on women’s menstruation cycle, menopause, and postpartum adjustment (5).
- Obesity – Ever galloped scoops of your favorite ice cream after a breakup. Yes – that is comfort eating. Chronic stress can often leave you low on energy and craving for food that has high sugar, fat content. According to a study conducted by University College London (UCL) people with higher cortisol levels had higher BMI and waist circumference.
- Rusts away immunity – Stress causes physical changes in our body. It leads to rapid heart breaths, muscle tightening preparing our body to face any attack/threat it might be under. While in short bursts it is an essential response but when it starts turning into a constant state of our alert system, hormonal balance starts getting adversely affected. All of these lead to inflammation and a compromised immune system in the body. “Think of inflammation as a ‘sickness behavior,’” says Madhukar Trivedi, MD, director of the Center for Depression Research and Clinical Care at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Inflammation, he says, “causes your body to act flu-ish, even in the absence of the flu virus.” This inflammation, over a period of time, leads to several chronic illnesses such as – Rheumatoid Arthritis, Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), skin problems like eczema, and even cancer.
All said and done, dealing with stress isn’t difficult if we develop a strong resolve. Practice breathing techniques, exercise regularly, eat a balanced diet, get enough rest and create a solid support system of friends and family to help calm your mind.