April is National Stress Awareness Month. Most of us are already well aware of stress and don't need a dedicated month to remind us that it exists. Many of us would much rather avoid it than increase our awareness-which is a great reason to have stress awareness month - the more we know about it and the more tips we can gain, the more we can minimize its negative health effects.
Stress will never go completely away, so we might as well thrive in spite of it.
Stress is actually a neutral world that refers to our reaction to any type of change: desired or undesired, expected or unexpected. We react with our whole being - our mind (thoughts and emotions), brain (neurochemical and electrical activity), and body (physiological responses). This is actually a good thing because it means we're alive. We need stress, and we need to respond to it appropriately.
If we have too little stress, we hardly react at all. This can make us lethargic and passive, and negatively impact our performance/behavior in all areas of our lives. However, if we have too much stress, our whole system (mind, brain & body) freaks out and goes into overdrive. And if we experience too much stress on an ongoing basis, we are at risk for a host of physical and mental health difficulties.
How Does Stress Impact Health?
Stress can affect us physically as well as mentally, so let's look at some of the physical manifestations of failing to effectively manage our stress.
Stress and Our Hearts
Having a healthy heart should always be a top priority. The American Heart Association says that more research is needed to determine the part that stress plays in our heart health. However, experts agree that periods of stress can lead to behaviors that increase the risk of developing heart disease. This can include eating more, drinking more alcohol, or smoking when stressed. None of these things are good for our cardiovascular health.
Stress and Digestion
Do you know that your gut is lined with more than 100 million neurons, meaning that - in a sense - it has its own brain? If stress can affect the mental health of our main brain, it seems reasonable that it can also affect digestive mental health. According to Harvard Health, psychological stress can cause ongoing digestive problems, such as constipation and/or diarrhea.
Stress and Weight
One of the most visible ways that stress can affect our health is through weight gain. Research published in the Biological Psychiatry Journal suggests that everyday stressors can cause our bodies to metabolize substances slower, which means we burn fewer calories throughout the day. According to the National Health Service, obesity and even simply being overweight have been linked to a myriad of health problems, including type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, certain cancers, and stroke. Mitigating these risks requires a single course of action: we must look for the signs and causes of stress and start taking measures to control it.
What Are Other Effects of Stress?
We all experience some form of stress from time to time. Mental and physical problems arise when this occasional "acute" stress turns into long-term "chronic" stress. Learning to spot the signs of stress could help keep it in check. According to the Mental Health Foundation, we should be looking out for the following signs of stress:
Stress impacts our mental state. You could find yourself becoming irritable, inflexible, short-tempered, or snapping at people. Stress can also be linked to a lack of sleep and (subsequently) difficulty concentrating. Talk to your doctor if this becomes the norm rather than the exception.
Similar to the mental changes, stress can wreak havoc with our emotional state. For example, you could start feeling anxious, fearful, frustrated, angry, or sad for no apparent reason. Again, ask your doctor for help and resources if you feel stress is causing you to be oversensitive and emotional.
Out-of-control emotions can lead to unusual behavior, such as becoming overly reliant on substances such as caffeine, alcohol, or other drugs. Changes to appetite and sleep patterns can also indicate an issue. Be aware of how you usually behave and ask for advice if anyone says you aren't acting like "you."
Next week, we will share simple tips for reducing stress and ways to keep your healthy levels of stress in check. In the meantime, schedule a time to speak to your doctor about the causes and effects stress may be having on your health.
If you do not have a primary care provider, visit www.summitmedical.com/health to find a doctor near you.