11 Ways Stress Hurts You and Your Health in the Long Run
“Stress is not bad for you; being stuck is bad for you.”― Emily Nagoski, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle
Stress comes in many forms: A big project at work. Planning your wedding. Going through a divorce. Raising teenagers. A sudden expense.
It’s a universal feeling. We’ve all experienced stress from time to time. But for some, the stress seems to linger. According to the American Institute of Stress, 33% of people report feeling extreme stress. The Global Organization for Stress has similar findings. In their report, 75% of Americans experienced moderate to high stress levels in the past month, and 80% of people felt stress at work. (1, 2)
Unfortunately, stress is a daily fixture in many of our lives, particularly in the workplace. Stress may have some important implications for human kind — and triggering the flight-or-fight response when we are in danger — but the problem is when it never goes away. In a short span of time, stress is a necessary protection; in a long span of time, it can chip away at your well-being.
Let’s take a look at 11 ways stress harms you and your health overtime, as well as a solution to process and cope with long-term stress.
- Chronic Inflammation
First up is chronic inflammation, and it’s a big one. More and more health experts are finding that chronic inflammation is at the root of major health issues, including autoimmune conditions, cancer, and heart issues. (3)
Too much stress overtime can trigger inflammatory responses in the body. Inflammation is how your body reacts to threats, whether it be an allergen, bacteria, virus, or even a psychological or emotional stressor. When too many stressors come one after another, your body can get stuck in a state of inflammation. (4, 5)
Inflammation and stress go hand-in-hand — and perpetuate each other. With the long list of negative effects of chronic inflammation, lessening stressors is more important than ever for our health.
- GI Issues
Have you ever felt the urge to run to the bathroom during a high stress moment? Bloating, constipation, diarrhea, heartburn, stomachaches… the list goes on for digestive complaints tied to stress. A major trigger of IBS, or irritable bowel syndrome, is chronic stress. (6)
Why does stress mess with your bathroom well-being? The answer lies with the body’s fight-or-flight response. During this, your body shifts energy away from non-essentials — such as digestion — to the essentials to get out of danger. In the short run, this makes sense to survive, say, being attacked by a bear. The problem is when your body stays in a stressful state, and your digestive system takes the brunt of it. (5)
For a healthy gut, and no more troublesome GI symptoms, the answer may be to slow down and look for ways to reduce stress in your life.
Headaches are a common enough occurrence, but if you find yourself going through more of your days with headaches, it might be due to stress. The way you hold yourself during stress, including posture and tensing your muscles, can physically trigger headaches. And for those already prone to headaches or migraines, stress can make it worse. (6)
Tension headaches are typically what people with chronic stress experience. Tension headaches are a steady ache, rather than throbbing pain, and usually feel like a tight band across your forehead. Unlike other headaches, tension headaches don’t tend to induce light sensitivity, nausea, or vomiting. (7)
Headaches can reduce your everyday quality of life, and your ability to focus on tasks at hand. If you get more than a few headaches a month, it may be a hint from your body to slow down and rest.
- Heart Disease
Have you ever heard of someone “dying from a broken heart?” That’s a real phenomenon, caused by a surge of stress hormones from the emotionally overpowering event. Stress can put a significant strain on your heart. (8)
When your body is in stress mode, you release the hormone adrenaline, which you’ve probably heard of before. Adrenaline speeds up your heart rate, and can also cause a narrowing of your arteries, which decreases blood flow to your heart. Plus, as we mentioned already, stress cranks up inflammation, which is a huge factor in heart disease. (5)
Another side note is people with high stress in their lives tend to exercise less, sleep less, use more substances, and eat poorly. These lifestyle factors also are heavily associated with heart complications. So making healthy lifestyle changes, alongside healthy stress coping mechanisms, can be huge for your heart health. (5)
- High Blood Pressure
It’s fitting we just mentioned heart disease since high blood pressure goes right along with it. High blood pressure is, unfortunately, more and more common in today’s world. Around half of Americans have high blood pressure. High blood pressure, or hypertension, is when the force of blood flowing through your blood vessels is consistently too high. It leads to many complications, including kidney disease, heart disease, and stroke. (9)
Stress is a factor in raising your blood pressure. One study found that people with prolonged stress were 60% more likely to have hypertension. Again, this goes back to those stress hormones that can raise blood pressure levels. Chronic stress can then mean chronic elevated blood pressure. (10)
Many people don’t realize they have hypertension until later stages, when real damage and conditions come about. That’s why preemptively watching your stress levels and how you process stress makes the difference for your blood pressure.
If you’re a female, it’s possible you’ve missed a period before, or experienced a lighter or heavier bleeding than normal. This can be upsetting, but it’s your body’s defense mechanism to excessive stress.
When your body pumps out cortisol, it interferes with hormone production like testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone. These hormones are critical for both males and females. For example, low amounts of testosterone can contribute to a variety of issues, including infertility, joint pain, muscle loss, obesity, reduced sex drive, and osteoporosis. Meanwhile, low amounts of estrogen in women may trigger fatigue, hot flashes, irregular periods, moodiness, night sweats, weight gain, etc. (11, 12)
So next time you miss a period, or experience one of these hormonal symptoms, you may want to consider your stress levels as the culprit.
- Immune System
As you know, your immune system is essential to keeping the bad out of your system. Anything from the common cold to viruses counts on your immune system being able to fight it off. With stress, though, comes a suppressed immune system and poor response to potential invaders.
As part of the fight-or-flight response, your body takes energy away to focus on survival versus immunity. Along with it, stress decreases lymphocytes, white blood cells that are essential to your body’s defenses, putting you at risk of viruses like the common cold. All of this means you are more susceptible to being sick — and staying sick. (13, 14)
Taking your vitamins and other immune-boosting nutrients may be a helpful way to support your immune system, but chronic stress can actively work against your immunity. Looking for ways to reduce stress is the best way to give your immune system a break.
- Nerve cells communicating for healthy brain function
- The body repairing cells, replenishing energy, and releasing hormones and proteins
- The brain storing new information and releasing toxic waste
Proper sleep has a plethora of health benefits, which is why health professionals and coaches alike mention it over and over. Unfortunately, stress can interfere with sleep and even lead to insomnia. According to the American Institute of Stress, 48 percent of people have trouble sleeping because of stress. Since stress activates your nervous and endocrine systems, it keeps you awake and alert, even at the wrong times. (1, 17)
There’s lots of content out there for healthy sleeping habits, such as limiting blue light exposure and cutting down on stimulants before bed. But if you are finding yourself unable to fall asleep, or tossing and turning at night, then stress may be keeping you up.
- Mental Illness
With the last five years and the big-time changes in the world, our mental states are worse than ever. Globally, it’s estimated 1 in 4 people will experience a mental illness in their lifetime. And the prevalence of mental illness has increased over 50% in the last three decades, which just goes to show the state of the world currently. (18)
Stress makes quite the difference for mental health. The American Institute of Stress found in a survey that 73 percent of people live with stress that impacts their mental health. When the stress hormone cortisol is continually released, it can mess with hormones and other messengers for mood and mental resilience. (1)
While lowering stress may not be the end-all, be-all solution for mental illness, it can definitely help. Look for small ways to lessen stress and anxiety, and see how that influences your mental well-being in the long run.
- Skin Conditions
Your skin is your largest organ, and is one of your first indicators of being less than well. You might break out in a rash, get a pimple, or look flushed, for example. Living with an itchy rash can be beyond frustrating, not to mention it can affect your appearance and confidence.
So how are stress and skin connected? This goes back to the pro-inflammatory responses, which trigger all the unpleasant skin reactions. The brain and skin are connected, so any negative emotions processed in the brain can manifest in the skin. In particular, stress response in the body disrupts the epidermal barrier, or the top layer of the skin that locks in moisture and protects from harmful microbes. Because of this, stress may also exacerbate existing conditions, such as acne, eczema, psoriasis, and rosacea. (19)
If you suddenly break out in acne or a rash, it could be related to stress. Either directly from your stress response, or even indirectly from the other negatives of stress. Disrupted hormones, high blood pressure, inflammation, and a weakened immune system can all play a role as well. (19)
- Weight Gain
Putting on some extra pounds is a nightmare for the average person. Even if it’s a natural part of aging, too much weight gain too fast can be a sign of something else. For example, your body being stuck in a state of stress.
You’ve probably heard of “stress eating.” That’s because of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol stimulates your fat and carbohydrate metabolism, giving you a sudden surge of energy. This is helpful for survival situations, but it also increases your appetite. Another side effect of increased cortisol levels is cravings for sweet, fatty, and salty foods. All of this together can lead to weight gain. (20)
In some cases, the best diet technique is to lower stress levels and let your body reset, so it can do its thing without actively sabotaging itself with raised hormones and cravings.
Still Stressing? Try: Retreats
There’s lots of little changes you can make in your life to better cope with stress. Eating better, sleeping better, meditation, yoga, and so on can all help. But in some cases, you need a bigger action step to snap yourself out of the stuck state.
As humans it’s normal for us to experience stress, but reducing it in your life isn’t always an option. You can’t control when a stressful situation hits you. And you often can’t make major changes to your professional or personal life to help. So what matters is how you manage it.
That’s where retreats come in. Retreats, and specifically burnout and stress management retreats, are a great option for people who need to learn healthy ways to process and manage daily stress. Trained professionals can walk you through coping mechanisms and tried and true techniques to handle the ups and downs of life.
Stress may be a frequent fixture in your life, but it doesn’t need to derail your health and happiness. You can overcome stress — and its many connected health problems. Just take a deep breath and take that first step forward.