We live in a stressed-out nation, according to the American Psychological Association (APA) survey, “Stress in America.” Most Americans feel moderate to high stress, with 44% reporting increased stress levels over the last 5 years. Many Americans have experienced stress from financial problems related to the economy. And many have found it difficult to balance work and home responsibilities and find the time to focus on healthy behaviors.
When you’re under stress day in and day out, it can take a toll on your physical and mental health. And if you have children, your stress may also be affecting them — more than you realize. According to the survey, 69% of parents said that their stress levels didn’t have a big effect on their children, yet 91% of kids knew when their parents were stressed. So it’s smart to learn how to manage stress to ensure good health for you and your family.
Types of Stress
Not all stress is bad for us, says Bruce S. McEwen, PhD, a leading stress researcher and head of the Harold and Margaret Milliken Hatch Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology at Rockefeller University, New York, NY.
- Good stress, says McEwen, “Is when you are presented with a challenge, you rise to that challenge, generally have a good outcome, and you feel exhilarated,” he says. Good stress can help us learn and grow.
- Tolerable stress occurs when something bad happens, such as a job loss, but you have the inner resources as well as people you can turn to who help you get through it.
- Toxic stress is when bad things happen, says McEwen. “And they may be really bad, or you don’t have the financial or internal resources to handle them.” This type of stress causes emotional and physical problems.
How Your Body Responds to Stress
When something very stressful occurs, your body leaps into action. The brain triggers the release of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones travel to different parts of the body, putting it on high alert. Your breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure increase. Blood vessels constrict, directing more blood to your brain and muscles. These stress responses get your body ready to either fight or flee.
Of course, fighting or fleeing isn’t something most of us need to do very often. “Early humans were exposed on a regular basis to many more real-life dangers than we are now,” says Katherine C. Nordal, PhD, executive director for professional practice of the American Psychological Association. The problem, she says, is that as we evolved, our world became less dangerous, but our bodies still react to stress the same way.
“Even psychological dangers such as the threat of abandonment or loss of self-esteem produce the same physiological response that real, physical dangers present,” Nordal tells WebMD. The daily grind, family and work conflicts, money troubles, and even world events create a certain level of stress and anxiety.
Stress and Your Health
“The brain is the central organ of stress,” says McEwen. Not only does the brain perceive what is threatening, it activates the hormonal systems within the body and responds to those hormones, he says.
Under normal conditions, the brain turns on these responses in a balanced way, and turns them off again when the danger has passed. However, when we experience toxic stress, these systems are pushed beyond their limits, McEwen says. Our brains secrete stress hormones, which may disrupt our metabolic and inflammatory systems. This can sometimes lower our resistance to illness. Stress affects the brain too, causing changes in its structure and connectivity. These changes are reversible in the short-term, but may be permanent over the long-term, he says.
Stress can also trigger certain unhealthy ways of coping. Many of us respond to stress by eating high-fat, high-calorie comfort foods, smoking, drinking too much, not sleeping, and not exercising. It’s the combination of changes in the body from the stress response, combined with our behavioral and emotional responses to stress that may lead to chronic health problems. These include:
- Cardiovascular disease. Stress does not directly cause heart disease. However, stress can put a strain on the heart and blood vessels, thereby contributing to heart disease.
- Diabetes. Stress can make it hard to follow your diabetes treatment plan, which can lead to poor health. Stress also directly increases glucose levels, especially in people with type 2 diabetes.
- Anxiety and depression. It’s no surprise that ongoing stress can wear you down mentally, and if severe, lead to anxiety and depression.
- Asthma. Stress does not cause asthma, but it can trigger asthma attacks and worsen symptoms.
- Obesity. In many people, stress can lead to overeating. But that’s not all. High levels of stress may increase the risk for visceral fat. This type of fat develops around waist and the organs in the abdomen, causing metabolic changes that can lead to diabetes and heart disease.
- Skin conditions. Stress can trigger or aggravate skin symptoms in people with psoriasis and eczema. Stress management may help control these conditions.
- Stomach problems. No, stress does not cause ulcers. But it can worsen symptoms of ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome.
- Acne. One large study confirmed what many teenagers already know: high levels of stress makes acne worse in teens.
Of course, not everyone responds to stress in the same way or has the same risk for health problems.
Manage Stress with Exercise
According to the APA survey, we get it — we know that stress is bad for us. We realize we should live more stress-free lives. Yet many of us feel helpless to do anything about it.
“The double-whammy part of this,” says Nordal, who helped develop the APA survey, “is that when you do get stressed, you are less likely to have the internal resources to get yourself moving to do something about your stress.”
That’s why taking small, realistic steps can get you started in the right direction. So what’s the first thing you should do? Nordal and McEwen have a simple recommendation: go for a walk.
Walking is the simplest way to get regular exercise, but any type of regular physical activity is a proven stress-buster and mood enhancer. “Don’t sit still, get up move around, fidget, do things, walk around, work standing up,” McEwen says. Every bit helps.
Stress Management Tips
It’s impossible to completely avoid stressful situations. But you can learn how to manage stress. Try these tips for stress-free days:
- Get enough sleep and eat a healthy diet. Get 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night so you have the energy to cope with stressful situations. Fill up and fuel your body with healthy choices rather than getting bogged down by high-fat comfort foods.
- Nurture close relationships. Often, we don’t appreciate how important friends and family can be for good health, says Nordal. “For example, we know that older adults live longer, happier lives if they’re partnered.”
- Learn to say “no.” This can be hard for many people, but saying no to one extra task at work or to that volunteer project can give you breathing room for other things in life.
- Learn to let go. Remember, the sky won’t fall if you wait another day to do laundry, clean the bathrooms, or write that thank-you note.
- Try new ways to relax. Some studies have found that yoga, meditation, and relaxation exercises may help reduce stress in people. Yoga will also help build strength and flexibility.
- Get help if you need it. If you can’t get seem to get relief from under stress and nothing seems to help, talk with a counselor.
“A lot of things related to stress come down to lifestyle and choices that people make,” says McEwen. By taking time for the basics: a healthy diet, plenty of sleep, regular exercise, and strong social connections, you’ll have the resources you need to help tackle whatever life throws your way.