Is Stress Really the Silent Killer?
Stress — that feeling of extra pressure or strain when something bad or unexpected occurs — can be uncomfortable. However, it can also change or harm your body and have lasting effects on your health. This has led some to call stress the silent killer.
Taking steps to minimize stress may reduce your risk of future medical conditions and improve your well-being. Preventing and dealing with stress more effectively is an important part of living a healthy lifestyle.
Types of Stress
Feeling stressed before a big work presentation isn’t likely to have a major impact on your health. This type of worry, called acute stress, only lasts a short while. In some cases, it can even be a good thing. It may help you perform better under pressure or react to a potentially dangerous situation.
On the other hand, chronic stress sticks around. It may stem from big life changes such as leaving a job, getting married, going through a breakup, having a child, or being diagnosed with a new health condition. It may also develop from ongoing challenges such as financial worries or problems at home or work.
You can’t avoid acute stress. It’s a normal part of life. However, you can work to reduce your levels of chronic stress to protect your health.
How Stress Affects Your Body and Mind
Stress is more than just a feeling — it’s a physical change that affects other processes in your body.
When you find yourself experiencing a stressful event, your brain responds. It churns out two key hormones: adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline is responsible for kicking your body into fight-or-flight mode, while cortisol controls your body’s stress reactions.
- Your airways open up wider, helping you take in more oxygen
- Your body sends more blood and oxygen to the tissues that need it most, such as the brain and muscles, and less to other areas like the digestive system
- Your body starts pumping more sugar around your body, which your muscles use for energy
- Your muscles tense up
- Your heart starts pumping faster
- Your immune system is activated
These processes are meant to be short term. They can help you get yourself out of a dangerous situation. When responding to acute stress, you’re more clear-headed, you feel less pain, and you have more physical strength.
However, adrenaline and cortisol can cause problems if they stick around. For example, increased blood sugar levels boost your energy in the short term, but increase your risk of diabetes in the long run.
Health Conditions Caused by Stress
Chronic stress raises your risk of several conditions, including:
Preventing chronic stress may help you avoid some of these problems down the road. If you have already been diagnosed with one of these conditions, controlling stress may reduce your symptoms.
Warning Signs of Too Much Stress
There are several symptoms of stress, including:
- Aches and pains, including headaches, back pain, neck pain, or jaw stiffness
- Low energy levels
- Rashes or other skin changes
- Nausea or indigestion
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Blurry vision
- Feeling sick more often because of a weakened immune system
- A lower sex drive
- Menstrual period changes such as a shorter or longer cycle or increased symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
- Weight gain or loss
- Insomnia or sleeping problems
- Light-headedness or dizziness
- Worry or nervousness
- Restlessness or jitteriness
- Problems thinking, focusing, remembering, or feeling motivated
- Using alcohol or drugs more often than usual or in unsafe ways
It may be time to talk to your doctor if you are experiencing signs of stress. This is especially true if you feel like stress is overwhelming you or getting in the way of your ability to complete your responsibilities at work or home. It’s also important to tell your doctor if your stress is giving you panic attacks. During a panic attack, your heart may feel like it’s beating too hard or too fast, you may struggle to take a deep breath, or you could experience chest pains, stomach pain, shaking, or dizziness.
How to Prevent and Manage Stress
To some extent, stress is part of being human. However, feeling stressed on a regular basis is not normal or healthy.
Fortunately, researchers have identified several strategies that can help reduce your stress levels and avoid stress-related health problems. To be in your best health, make time for activities that help you relax and recharge.
Take a Deep Breath
Deep breathing exercises can cause physical changes within your body. They shut off your sympathetic nervous system (the part of your nervous system that controls your fight-or-flight response) and activate your parasympathetic nervous system (the part of your nervous system that makes you relax after you experience stress).
Not only can deep breathing lower stress levels, but it can also help treat anxiety and migraines, reduce blood pressure, improve lung function, and help improve well-being for people with chronic conditions like gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and cancer.
One of the simplest forms of deep breathing, known as diaphragmatic breathing, can help fight stress. To practice this, the American Lung Association recommends the following steps:
- Sit in a comfortable position or lie down and place your hands on your stomach. Relax your body, including your shoulders, arms, and neck.
- Take in a deep breath of air, making sure that your belly rises.
- Slowly breathe out, feeling your belly fall back into its original position.
- Make your exhales at least twice as long as your inhales. For example, breathe in while counting to four and breathe out while counting to eight.
- Repeat for 10 minutes.
There are many other types of deep breathing exercises. Try searching for deep breathing videos or apps that guide you through the process. Some types of deep breathing are also forms of meditation or yoga.
Meditation can undo the effects of stress at the molecular level. It reverses some of the changes caused by stress within your cells, minimizing damage and helping prevent premature aging.
Meditation may also reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Additionally, it can lower pain levels, improve sleep, and boost overall mental well-being.
- Using a smartphone app that focuses on mindfulness
- Watching a YouTube video that guides you through a mindfulness exercise
- Listening to a mindful meditation podcast
- Looking for a mindfulness center or meditation center in your city
- Taking a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) class at a local medical center, yoga center, or athletic club, in which you take an eight-week class that teaches you mindfulness exercises
- Enrolling in an MBSR class online
- Finding a therapist who specializes in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy to learn meditation exercises and closely examine how your thoughts and habits affect your mental health
You can also try simple mindfulness meditation practices on your own. The Mayo Clinic suggests performing a body scan meditation. Start by sitting or lying down on your back. Focus on your toes and notice any discomfort, itching, heat, tingling, pressure, or other sensations. Don’t judge the sensations or any thoughts that run through your mind; just notice that they’re there. Next, move your focus to your feet and pay attention to any other sensations. Slowly focus on each part of your body in turn, working your way to the top of your head.
If you regularly practice body scan meditations, you may find that your mind is increasingly able to stay focused in the present moment and that physical or mental signs of stress don’t bother you as much.
Analyze Your Coping Mechanisms
Many people turn to unhealthy habits as a way to escape their stress. Try to notice if you’re doing the same — do you feel like you need a drink after a trying day at work? Have you been reaching for cigarettes more often? Are you tempted to binge on unhealthy snacks when you’re feeling the pressure?
These habits can be symptoms of stress, but they can also worsen your mental state. Try to be honest with yourself about whether you’re relying on coping mechanisms that could negatively impact your health. Try to not only avoid these activities but also replace them with some of the healthier habits listed here.
It’s often easier to break bad habits with outside support. You may want to look into programs to help you reduce or stop your drinking, quit smoking, or eat mindfully. Working with a mental health professional can also be a very effective way to develop healthier habits and address the root causes of your stress.
Stretch Your Muscles
When you feel stressed, your muscles tend to tense up. Stretching exercises can ease this physical stress symptom. Research has also found that stretching can lower levels of stress hormones and turn on relaxation processes in your brain.
Yoga and tai chi are both types of physical activity that combine breathing exercises, meditation, and stretching. Regularly practicing one of these activities may help you avoid the effects of stress and avoid anxiety and depression.
Stress and physical activity can affect each other: you’re more likely to avoid exercise when you’re stressed, but you’re also more likely to feel stressed when you’re not moving around enough.
Other types of workouts besides stretching, yoga, and tai chi can combat stress. Exercise encourages your brain to make neurotransmitters that boost your mood and train your body to fight stress-related health problems.
You’re more likely to stick with an exercise program if you start slow and do something you enjoy. Anything that gets you moving can help boost your health!
Take Your Vitamins
Vitamins and minerals help your mind and body function at their best. In particular, your brain uses many types of B vitamins to produce neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) such as serotonin and dopamine that help control your mood and thinking abilities. These neurotransmitters also play a role in conditions like anxiety and depression.
Several studies have found that vitamin B supplements can help reduce stress symptoms and boost mood. Those who don’t get enough nutrients from their diet may be the most likely to benefit from taking more vitamin B.
Many people with high stress levels also have low magnesium levels. Magnesium could help control cortisol levels and play a role in whether you turn to unhealthy behaviors to manage stress.
Eating a balanced diet containing many different types of whole foods helps you ensure that you are taking in all of the nutrients you need to support your mental health.
Set Aside Self-Care Time
It’s always important to take the time to relax.
Finding time to relax can feel hardest when we’re stressed, but this is when it’s most important to make the time. Try keeping your mornings just for you — do some deep breathing or meditation, step outside for a few minutes, or drink a cup of coffee while reading a book you like. Alternatively, you may find it easier to wind down in the evening with a warm bath or calming music. Take breaks throughout your day to go on a walk or spend time talking to loved ones.
Talk to a Professional
A therapist or counselor can help you deal with ongoing stress, whether you’re experiencing a little more anxiety than usual or you’re completely overwhelmed. They can also teach you tools that help you avoid or deal with stress in the future.
Therapy comes in several forms. You may choose to meet with a mental health professional individually or as part of a group. A therapist may teach you deep breathing exercises, analyze your beliefs or behaviors, understand where your emotions are coming from, problem-solve a specific issue, or help you with something else based on your needs.
Living a Life With Minimal Stress
Although it may not be easy, it’s possible to make lifestyle changes that help you feel less stressed. Even small steps may go a long way when you commit to building healthy habits that fight stress.
If your stress levels feel too high to manage on your own, bring it up with your doctor. You may want to seek additional suggestions, ask about medication that fights anxiety or depression, or get a referral to a mental health provider who can better help you.