Pamela Malo, MHS, RD, Arivale Coach
Americans are stressed out–an estimated 75 percent of us experience moderate to high levels of stress, according to Harvard Medical School–and that’s bad news for our wellness. Chronic stress may increase blood pressure,1 contribute to heart disease, and encourage weight gain.
The real, long-term effects of chronic stress on physical and mental health are why stress management is an important component of overall wellness. In this blog, we’ll dive into why stress can be bad for your body and how to mitigate potential harm through stress management.
How stress affects the body
Stress is the perception of a real or imagined threat to your body or sense of self. Hormones brought on by stress cause your heart rate and breathing to increase and your muscles to tense. Acute stress typically has no long-lasting impacts on your body. But with chronic stress, those same hormones can stay in the body at elevated levels for too long, potentially leading to unwanted weight gain,2 trouble sleeping,3,4 heart disease, and diabetes.5
The hormones associated with chronic stress can negatively affect your body’s blood sugars, blood pressure, and lipids. Epinephrine can harm blood vessels and arteries, potentially leading to high blood pressure and an increased risk of stroke6 or heart attack.7 Meanwhile, high levels of cortisol lingering in the body can increase appetite and the storage of unused fat, possibly playing a part in weight gain and obesity.8
Chronic stress may also have a role in changes in the brain linked to anxiety, depression,9 and addiction.10
What type of stress management is right for you?
The top sources of stress, according to surveyed Americans, are money, work, and the economy. But those are far from the only common stressors.
Other common sources of stress include:
- Planning for retirement
- Raising children
- Current world events
- Preparing meals
- Lack of free time
- Poor sleep
- Weight management
To understand what type of stress-management strategy is the right solution for your stressor, list your sources of stress in one of four boxes based on how important the stressor is and how much control you have over it.
For stressors in either of the low-importance boxes, the strategy is this: let go, prioritize, and delegate. For a high-importance stressor that you also have a high amount of control over: work to solve the problem. If your stressors are highly important but you have a low amount of control over them, a daily stress-management practice–such as deep breathing, mindfulness meditation, or progressive muscle relaxation–becomes important.
How to manage stress
There are two paths for managing stress: acute stress management and long-term, regular stress management.
Acute stress is “in the moment” stress.
Physical activity is a good way to fight acute stress.11 It relieves muscle tension and deepens your breathing, which relaxes the body’s natural response to stress. For example, Harvard Medical School recommends a brisk walk in moments of stress. But, physical activity isn’t the only way to get the benefits of deep breathing, which can reduce tension, clear your mind, and improve your overall wellness. Here are three deep-breathing exercises you can try.
There’s also the Quick Coherence Technique from HearthMath, which can bring harmony to thoughts and emotions and ease feelings of stress through the power of the heart. HeartMath states the technique can create a coherent state in a minute or so.
For long-term, chronic stress, management techniques focus more on lifestyle changes.
Start with nutrition. Make sure you’re eating enough protein and balancing the complex carbs, fats, vegetables, and proteins you’re taking in. Eat within an hour of waking up and then regularly throughout the day (not always an easy feat when you’re feeling stressed, especially at work) in order to manage your cortisol and blood sugar levels.
Beyond nutrition, you can try mindfulness meditation (here’s a free, self-guided course on mindfulness-based stress reduction), progressive muscle relaxation (check out this training video), massage therapy, and improving your sleep.
- Djindjic N, Jovanovic J, Djindjic B, Jovanovic M, Jovanovic JJ. (2012). Associations between the occupational stress index and hypertension, type 2 diabetes mellitus, and lipid disorders in middle-aged men and women. The Annals of Occupational Hygiene. 2012 Nov;56(9):1051-62. doi: 10.1093/annhyg/mes059.
- N Bergmann, F Gyntelberg, and J Faber. (2014). The appraisal of chronic stress and the development of the metabolic syndrome: a systematic review of prospective cohort studies. Endocrine Connections. 2014 May 19. doi: 10.1530/EC-14-0031.
- M Hall, PhD, M Casement, PhD, W Troxel, PhD, K Matthews, PhD, J Bromberger, PhD, H Kravitz, DO, MPH, R Krafty, PhD, and D Buysse, MD. (2015). Chronic Stress is Prospectively Associated with Sleep in Midlife Women: The SWAN Sleep Study. Sleep. 2015 Oct 1; 38(10): 1645–1654.
- J Grønli, J Soulé, and C Bramham. (2014). Sleep and protein synthesis-dependent synaptic plasticity: impacts of sleep loss and stress. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. 2013; 7: 224.
- Jovanović J, Stefanović V, Stanković DN, Bogdanović D, Kocić B, Jovanović M, Antić Z, Nikolić M, Jovanović J. (2008). Serum lipids and glucose disturbances at professional drivers exposed to occupational stressors. Central European Journal of Public Health. 2008 Jun;16(2):54-8.
- C Ayada, Ü Toru, and Y Korkut. (2015). The relationship of stress and blood pressure effectors. Hippokratia. 2015 Apr-Jun; 19(2): 99–108.
- Myers B. (2016). Corticolimbic regulation of cardiovascular responses to stress. Physiology & Behavior. 2017 Apr 1;172:49-59. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2016.10.015.
- Why stress causes people to overeat. Harvard Health Publishing. Harvard Medical School. February 2012. https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/why-stress-causes-people-to-overeat
- S Khan and RA Khan. (2017). Chronic Stress Leads to Anxiety and Depression. Annals of Psychiatry and Mental Health. 2374-0124.
- R Sinha. (2008). Chronic Stress, Drug Use, and Vulnerability to Addiction. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 2008 Oct; 1141: 105–130.
- D Head, T Singh, and JM Bugga. (2012). The moderating role of exercise on stress-related effects on the hippocampus and memory in later adulthood. Neuropsychology. 2012 Mar; 26(2): 133–143.