Worried sick? You’re not alone! Did you know 77% of people claim to experience stress that affects their physical health? Between work, school, relationships, finances, and more, balancing day-to-day responsibilities can feel overwhelming. Read on to learn why too much stress can make us more suspectable to viruses and for healthy ways to cope when under pressure.
What is Stress?
The World Health Organization defines stress as “a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation.” Stress is a natural human response that prompts us to address challenges and threats in our lives. Because we are all influenced by different experiences and have different coping mechanisms, we are all affected by stress in different ways. Continue reading for more on the causes of stress and how our bodies respond.
Causes of Stress
Did you know that your personality type can affect the different levels of stress you feel? For example, suppose you constantly strive for excellence and set exceedingly high expectations for yourself, aka you’re a perfectionist. In that case, you may experience unnecessary extra stress while fighting to meet your high standards. Similarly, suppose you are often described by peers as having a type A personality, meaning you may feel more competitive and/or have a strong achievement orientation. That can lead to additional stress due to intense feelings of self-worth solely based on your accomplishments. On the other hand, if you have an extroverted personality, you may experience less stress, as extroverts tend to have larger social circles, which can be an outlet to relieve tensions.
While many factors, including your personality type, can contribute to stress, multiple different outside stressors are commonly experienced.
A few of these top causes of stress include:
- Finances: Anxiety about money is the highest recorded since 2015, with 65% of Americans stating that finances are a significant source of stress.
- Work: 83% of U.S. workers agree they suffer from work-related stress.
- Relationships: Over a third of Americans identify their past and present relationships as the primary cause of their mental health concerns.
- Day-to-Day Stressors: Daily inconveniences, such as running late, being too busy, overwhelming emails, doctors’ appointments, and more, can contribute to our overall stress levels and well-being.
Your Body Under Stress
Now that we know about various psychological and environmental factors that may cause stress, what actually happens to your body when experiencing tension? When under stress, the hypothalamus, an area of the brain that produces hormones that control hunger, body temperature, mood, and heart rate, releases “stress hormones” into the bloodstream. Short term, this can have several effects on the body, including an increased heart rate, unsteady breathing, and tense muscles.
Can Some Stress Be Good?
The answer is yes; while there is abundant research on bad stress, sometimes stress can be good! Short-term, or acute stress, comes from quick surprises that the body needs to respond to immediately. As long as we can return to our normal state once the stressor is gone, this type of stress can be helpful in dangerous or high-stakes situations.
The Fight or Flight Response
When put in a situation that terrifies you, your body releases hormones that prepare you to either face a threat or get to safety, also known as the flight or fight response. You can most likely remember a time when your body experienced this response – your heart rate increased, you became pale and shaky, and your breathing sped up. Perhaps you’ve felt this before a big performance, such as giving a presentation or running in a race.
The fight or flight response benefits us when we are under threat, as you are more likely to handle the situation effectively (this may help you crush your presentation or pass the finish line faster than ever)! When in a stressful situation that is more life-threatening, stress plays a critical role in your survival, making it more likely you will be able to outlive the danger.
Benefits to the Immune System
According to the National Library of Medicine, short-term stress experienced during immune activation can enhance beneficial responses, such as during surgery, vaccination, or wound healing. This is because cortisol, a hormone released during stress, limits inflammation and therefore boosts immunity. When stressed, the body also produces extra interleukins, a chemical that helps regulate the immune system. For example, minor stress on the body, such as regular exercise and physical activity, can enhance the body’s ability to fight off infection and disease and heal injuries.
Can Too Much Stress Be Bad?
While when experienced in short spurts, stress can rev up your immune system, when you are overly stressed, this can lead to an abundance of cortisol in your blood, opening the door for more inflammation. Keep reading to learn about how your body reacts to chronic stress.
Increased Stress Hormones
As mentioned previously, the body releases hormones such as adrenal and cortisol during a stress reaction which can be helpful in the short term when responding to danger, fighting off infection, and boosting energy. However, when consistently stressed and experiencing prolonged elevated stress hormones, long-term memory function, performance skills, motivation, and your ability to focus can decrease. While prolonged stress will have different effects from person to person, here are a few ways “bad stress” may be affecting you:
- Your Heart: Chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure, increased risk of heart attack and cardiovascular disease, and/or heartburn caused by increased stomach acid production.
- Your Mind: Prolonged stress can also wear you down emotionally and lead to depression, insomnia, exhaustion, irritability, and more.
- Your Stomach: Stress can make you feel bloated, nauseous, constipated, and/or cause stomach aches due to slowed digestion.
- Your Skin: An increased immune response caused by stress can lead to the worsening of skin conditions such as acne, eczema, hives, rosacea, and more.
- Your Head: Being overly stressed can cause migraine headaches and keep them going, as chronic pain can boost your stress.
Negative Effects on the Immune System
Although our flight or fight response is meant to benefit us, it becomes problematic when our bodies generate the same response during non-threatening situations. When the body is battling continual stress, it doesn’t get an opportunity to return to its natural functioning, resulting in a vulnerable immune system. Over time, stress hormones can reduce your body’s response to foreign invaders, making people suffering from chronic stress more susceptible to infectious diseases and viral illnesses such as colds and flues. On top of being more susceptible to germs and infections, stress can also increase the time it takes for your body to fight off the illness or injury. In addition, a recent study found that social stress, such as discrimination and family problems, or job and money problems, can contribute to the premature aging of your immune system, which can increase the risk of cancer and heart disease.
Unhealthy Stress Behaviors
We all have different ways we handle stressful times – some ways being healthier than others. A few coping mechanisms to watch out for include:
- Binge-watching TV
- Withdrawing from your social life
- Overeating or undereating
- Sleeping too much
- Increased drug and alcohol intake
According to a study by the American Psychological Association, 56% of adults who experience stress report sleeping too much or being unable to sleep. If you think you may be struggling with unhealthy coping mechanisms, keep reading for a few ways to change your mindset and adopt healthy habits.
Healthy Ways to Cope with Stress
Everyone experiences varying levels of stress at some point in their lives. However, how we respond to that stress significantly impacts our mental and physical health. The first step in stress management is recognizing habits that may be causing further harm to your mental health. For example, if you catch yourself reaching for a sugary snack when feeling stressed, try going for a walk or calling a family member next time instead. If you are experiencing chronic stress and consistent negative thoughts, seek help from a professional such as a mental health coach or therapist.
Take Care of Your Mind
A population-based study by Twenge and Campbell found that increased screen time was generally linked to psychological well-being, and people with higher screen times were more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety and depression. This is because when constantly staring at a screen, we are depriving ourselves of physical activity while also straining our eyes and brains with the constant influx of information we are taking in. Not to mention, too much social media can increase our feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression, as we are constantly comparing ourselves, taking in traumatic news stories, and measuring our self-worth based on a like button. If you are someone who struggles with lowering your screen time, try turning off your notifications, setting timers on your apps to remind you to put your phone down, and dedicating times of your day that will be screen-free such as when sitting down for meals, or when waking up in the morning.
Another way to take care of your mind and ease your stress levels is to take a break. Whether this means taking a week-long vacation, a mental health day off from work, or an hour to play with your furry animal companion, taking a break gives your mind a chance to reset and avoid burnout. According to the National Heart Association, 95% of pet parents rely on their fur babies for stress relief. So next time you feel stressed and opting for a not-so-good-for-you coping mechanism, try playing fetch, snuggling, or walking with your pet!
Lastly, try engaging in activities that make you feel good! Participating in enjoyable activities, such as making time for your hobbies, may facilitate your stress recovery by replenishing your depleted energy and resources and helping you to focus on the present moment. Hobbies push you to unwind and lose track of time while also being productive as you work towards a new skill like painting, sewing, playing an instrument, gardening, and more.
Taking Care of Your Body
On top of taking care of your mind, moving your body regularly helps relieve stress by pumping up your endorphins, balancing the nervous system, and increasing blood circulation which helps flush out stress hormones. A 6-week-long study of 185 university students found that those who participated in aerobic exercises two days per week significantly improved overall perceived stress and depression levels. Whether going for a 20-minute stroll through the park or running a marathon, simply getting your body moving, on top of the physical benefits, can also greatly improve your mental health and feelings of stress,
Another way to take care of your body and reduce stress is by practicing healthy eating. For example, alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine may temporarily relieve feelings of stress but can have negative health impacts down the line and worsen your stress in the long term. Set your body up for success by minimizing your intake of alcohol, caffeine, and highly processed foods and beverages, and increasing your intake of whole foods such as vegetables, fruits, and nuts. A balanced diet can give your body the extra nutrients it needs to fight off stress and build a healthier immune system.
In this blog, we’ve covered where stress comes from, good and bad stress, and healthy coping mechanisms we can apply to our everyday routines to help us better handle stress and reduce its impact on our minds, bodies, and immune systems. So, which healthy stress-coping habits will you add to your routine?