How Does Stress Harm Your Health?

Stress Can Harm Sleep, Cause Depression and Even Hurt Your Marriage

stressed couple taking care of baby in bedroom
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We all experience stress, to some degree, in our daily life. From work to busy schedules, from important relationships to our goals and dreams, we have competing priorities and it's a lot to keep on top of. But while a limited amount of stress is normal, and even healthy, continuous or severe stress can be very harmful to your physical and mental health. Because all stress isn't the same and different types of stress affect us in ways that are somewhat unique, it helps to understand the different types of stress and how to best manage each, so you can tackle stress in the most effective ways.

Types of Stress

Stress can be defined as any type of change that causes physical, emotional or psychological strain. However, not all types of stress are harmful or even negative. There are a few different types of stress that we encounter:

  • Eustress, a type of stress that is fun and exciting, and keeps us energized. This is the kind of stress we associate with surges of adrenaline, such as when you are skiing or racing to meet a deadline. 
  • Acute Stress, a very short-term type of stress that can either be positive or more distressing. This is the type of stress we most often encounter in day-to-day life.
  • Episodic Acute Stress, where acute stress seems to run rampant and be a way of life, creating a life of relative chaos.
  • Chronic Stress, the type of stress that seems never-ending and inescapable, like the stress of a bad marriage or an extremely taxing job. 

Stress and the Flight-or-Flight Response

Stress can trigger the body’s response to perceived threat or danger, the Fight-or-Flight response. During this reaction, certain hormones like adrenalin and cortisol are released, speeding the heart rate, slowing digestion, shunting blood flow to major muscle groups, and changing various other autonomic nervous functions, giving the body a burst of energy and strength. Originally named for its ability to enable us to physically fight or run away when faced with danger, it’s now activated in situations where neither response is appropriate, like in traffic or during a stressful day at work. When the perceived threat is gone, systems are designed to return to normal function via the relaxation response, but in our times of chronic stress, this often doesn’t happen enough, causing damage to the body.

The Impact on Your Health

When faced with chronic stress and an over-activated autonomic nervous system, people begin to see a negative impact on their health. The first symptoms are relatively mild, like chronic headaches and increased susceptibility to colds. With more exposure to chronic stress, however, more serious health problems may develop. These stress-influenced conditions include, but are not limited to:

  • depression
  • diabetes
  • hair loss
  • heart disease
  • hyperthyroidism
  • obesity
  • obsessive-compulsive or anxiety disorder
  • sexual dysfunction
  • tooth and gum disease
  • ulcers

The effects of stress impact us emotionally as well, which is a truth both obvious and often ignored. While some stress may produce feelings of mild anxiety or frustration, prolonged stress can lead to burnout, anxiety disorders, and depression. A study of stress in America by the American Psychological Association shows that a large proportion of people (roughly one-quarter of respondents) feel their stress levels are harmful to their physical and emotional health and feel they aren't doing enough to manage the stress.

While short-term stress is usually harmless, prolonged stress can have serious implications for your health. If you are battling stress and are beginning to show physical symptoms, consult with your doctor about ways to manage your stress levels in a healthy way. 

What You Can Do

To keep stress, especially chronic stress, from damaging your health, it’s important to be sure that your body does not experience excessive states of this physiological arousal. There are two important ways to do this:

Seeking Professional Help

Sometimes stress becomes so great that people develop stress-related disorders or need the help of medications, herbal treatments or the aid of a professional. If you experience excessive anxiety or symptoms of depression, find yourself engaging in unhealthy or compulsive behaviors, or have a general feeling that you need help, talk to your doctor or a health care professional. There is help available, and you can be feeling better and more in control of your life soon.

Whatever your situation, stress need not damage your health. If you handle your stress now, you can quickly be on the road to a healthier, happier life.

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Article Sources
  • Schneiderman, N., Ironson, G., Siegal, S. "Stress and Health: Psychological, Behavioral and Biological Determinants". Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 607-628, 2005.