Everyone encounters stress from time to time. Whether it’s due to work, family issues, money problems or simply being stuck in a traffic jam, stress affects us all. The problem is, these negative types of stress can keep you from feeling and performing your best—mentally, physically, and emotionally.
And since stress will always be a part of the human experience, it’s important to learn how to manage the stressors in your life. But first, let’s take a look at some of the ways stress can negatively affect your health.
How Stress Affects the Body
Your body’s natural response to stress is supposed to protect you. But if stress becomes constant, it can start to have a harmful physical impact that can increase your risk for a number of health problems.
The heart. When you’re stressed, your body releases the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is one of the key players in your fight-or-flight response when you are faced with a stressor. Some studies suggest that high levels of cortisol can increase blood cholesterol, triglycerides, blood sugar, and blood pressure.1 These are all common risk factors that can heighten the risk of heart disease. Chronic stress has also been shown to promote the buildup of plaque in arteries, which contributes to atherosclerosis—a condition that stiffens and narrows arteries and increases the odds of a heart attack or stroke.2
Long-term stress can also affect how the blood clots. This makes the blood stickier and can increase the risk of stroke.3
The brain. In the face of stress, your brain goes through a series of reactions designed to guard against potential threats. For instance, short-term stress can help sharpen the mind and improve the ability to remember details about an important event. But a study conducted at the University of California, Berkeley, showed how chronic stress can lead to negative long-term changes in the structure and function of the brain. During their study, the researchers found that chronic stress triggered the overproduction of myelin, an insulating sheath that surrounds the nerves in the brain. This caused an imbalance between the brain’s gray matter that is responsible of higher thinking and problem solving and the brain’s white matter that governs learning and communication. Over time, this imbalance can cause lasting changes to the brain’s structure and may lead to an increased risk of anxiety and mood disorders.4
The quality of sleep. Sleep is an important resource. It keeps you healthy, mentally sharp, and able to cope with stress more effectively. But can stress affect the quality of your sleep? Absolutely! Your sleep-wake cycle follows a 24-hour circadian rhythm, more commonly known as your sleep-wake cycle. The body’s production of cortisol follows a similar circadian rhythm, dropping to its lowest level right around midnight and peaking about an hour after you wake up. Chronic stress can disrupt this natural cycle and lead to excessive levels of cortisol, which can disrupt healthy sleep patterns.5
When stress strikes, it helps practice some stress-reducing activities like those listed below, even if it is only for 10 minutes. The key is finding the tips that work best for you and making them a part of your daily routine.
- Get regular physical activity
- Practice mindfulness and other relaxation techniques
- Spend time with family and friends
- Set aside time for your favorite hobbies
- Make art! Try coloring or painting
- Play with a pet outdoors
If you’re not sure if stress is the cause of your health issues, see your doctor or consider seeing a professional therapist who can help you discover tools to help you manage your stress.
- Maduka I, Neboh E, Ufelle S. The relationship between serum cortisol, adrenaline, blood glucose and lipid profile of undergraduate students under examination stress. African Health Sciences. 2015; 15(1): 131-136.
- Hamer M, Endrighi R, Venuraju S, et al. Cortisol responses to mental stress and the progression of coronary artery calcification in healthy men and women. PLOS One Journal. 2012; 7(2): e31356.
- Dong T, Cheng Y, Yang F, et al. Chronic stress facilitates the development of deep venous thrombosis. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity. 2015; ID 384535.
- Chetty S, Friedman AR, Taravosh-Lahn K, et al. Stress and glucocorticoids promote oligodendrogenesis in the adult hippocampus. Molecular Psychiatry. 2014; 19:1275-1283.
- Han K, Kim L, Shim I. Stress and sleep disorder. Experimental Neurobiology. 2012; 21(4): 141-150.
This article is for informational purposes only. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.