The feeling is universal: elevated heart rate, tense muscles, racing breath, and an overall sour mood characterizes the effect stress has on the body. But this isn’t an isolated experience felt by a small few. The symptoms of stress are all too common. In 2017, a survey from the American Psychological Association found that 71% of respondents reported experiencing at least one symptom of stress over the past month.
Not all stress is bad. Sometimes we get stressed about a family member’s wedding or about the pressure behind starting a new job. This is a sort of motivational stress, more of anticipation, that our body is well equipped to handle. Long term, or chronic, stress can complicate this story. Over time stress has a measurable effect on both our mental and physical well being.
Muscles react first. Acute stress is often met by a reflex: we tense up. Too much tension can lead to chronic tightness or migraine-type headaches.
The respiratory system follows. Elevated breathing occurs as the airway between the nose and the lungs constricts. For people with pre-existing respiratory conditions like bronchitis or emphysema, this can become an issue.
Stress is a facet of the fight or flight response, which also effects the cardiovascular system. The blood vessels that direct blood to larger muscles and the heart dilate, increasing the amount of blood moving through the body at a given time. Blood pressure skyrockets.
Some people also experience gastro-intenstinal distress. Bloating, pain, and nausea are all common. In more intense scenarios, even vomiting can occur.
At the heart of all of these impacts on various systems is cortisol, the hormone that is released when we undergo stress. In small doses, cortisol is harmless and triggers necessary responses. When we are constantly stressed, however, cortisol hangs around too much and begins to wreak havoc on our long term health. High levels of cortisol have been linked to anxiety, depression, digestive problems, heart diseases, sleep issues, weight gain, and memory impairment.
There are three solid strategies that can help mediate chronic stress.
Having a healthy social support network is essential. Confiding in those you trust can lift the burden of stress off of your shoulders, and you’re sure to find out that everyone at some point experiences the same symptoms.
Physical activity is a must. Exercise releases dopamine, takes your mind off of stressors, and is a hobby focused on progress. Positive change can lift you out of a slump.
Finally, never neglect sleep. We need to rest to perform at our best, and a good night’s sleep can better prepare our bodies to handle the physical symptoms of stress.