Occasional stress can be helpful, giving you motivation in today’s fast-paced world. But, long periods of stress can cause serious health problems. Here’s more.
From work to family to money concerns, stress is a natural consequence of life in today’s fast-paced world. The good news is that you can use short bursts of it to prepare for an important presentation, meet a tight deadline or escape physical danger. Too much, though, is just plain bad for your health.
Health Consequences of Stress
Stress affects every part of your body. It tenses your muscles, quickens your heart rate and breathing speed, and raises your blood pressure to deal with the perceived threat. These physical effects are usually innocuous in short bursts, but can cause a variety of health problems in the chronically stressed.
Mental consequences of stress include:
- Anger and irritability
- Loss of focus or motivation
Physical consequences of stress include:
- Muscle pain and tension
- Heartburn and acid reflux
- Low sex drive
- Erectile dysfunction
- High blood sugar
- High blood pressure
- Weakened immune system
- Increased risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes
Stress and Weight Gain
Do you ever reach for comfort foods, such as a batch of cookies or a bag of cookies, when you’re stressed? Do you tend to use more substances like caffeine or alcohol? These choices may be increasing your stress levels even more.
Typical comfort foods like fried chicken, pizza, macaroni and cheese, chocolate and pastries tend to be high in fat and/or sugar. Eating these foods may feel good in the moment, but they leave you tired and sluggish in the long run, less able to deal with the source of the stress. Alcohol similarly impairs your ability to deal with stress.
That vanilla latte you grab to keep going through the stressful situation may not be a good idea, either. Sugar and caffeine trigger stress hormones that can make a bad situation worse.
How to Combat Stress
One simple way to reduce stress is to improve your diet. Instead of fatty, sugary comfort foods, choose healthier options. Foods high in complex carbohydrates such as rice, pasta and sweet potatoes cause your brain to release serotonin, a relaxing hormone, without making you sluggish. Foods high in good fat, such as salmon and tuna, can help regulate your stress hormones and stress surges. Balancing your diet with healthy fats, protein, and plenty of fruits and veggies is a great start to reducing your stress level.
Exercise is also a crucial aspect of natural stress relief. You may feel too busy to stay active, but exercise releases powerful endorphins that improve your mood. Regular exercise has been shown to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety and improve your sleep. Aim to get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise, such as brisk walking or swimming, or 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise, such as running.
Set aside time to actively relax. Scrolling through Facebook or watching TV may feel like an easy way to unwind, but they do nothing for your overall wellness. Set aside time to focus on a relaxing activity, even if it’s just 15 minutes a day. Try meditation, deep breathing, or a relaxing hobby such as knitting or reading. You can also make exercise a form of active relaxation with yoga, a long walk or a hike through nature.
For surges of stress, deep breathing can be the perfect calming tool. When stressed, we tend to take short, shallow breaths or hold our breath for longer than necessary. If you feel particularly stressed out, try taking five deep, full breaths.