Though stress never feels good, it can serve a useful purpose. Stress is a signal to the brain and body that can help us identify physiological and psychological issues. Chronic stress, however, can be a catalyst for depression, anxiety and mood disorders—serious problems that together are ranked number one among the top five national health conditions contributing to poor health in nearly every county of every state in the U.S. In order to manage stress, there needs to be a deeper understanding of what it is, what symptoms are involved and when it is time to seek help.
What is Stress?
The stress response occurs when there is a perceived threat in the environment. It is often referred to as the “fight or flight” response, meaning the body prepares to flee from the threat or shifts all its energy toward confronting it. Stressors, or the stimuli that cause stress, can be any life change—whether big or small, negative or even positive—such as the birth of a child, loss of employment, or illness. Stress can manifest itself in ways that impact thinking, behavior and emotions. The body’s response can involve any of the following:
- Alertness Increases
- Blood Pressure Rises
- Breathing Becomes More Rapid
- Digestive System Slows Down
- Heart Rate Rises
- Immune System Goes Down
- Muscles Tense
Good Stress vs. Bad Stress
Stress is considered beneficial when it provides a burst of energy that can heighten awareness, lock memories and be a motivator to get things done more efficiently. Negative stress, on the other hand, is usually long-lasting, less manageable and decreases performance. Signs of bad stress include:
- Appetite Changes
- Dramatic Changes in Sleeping Patterns
- Lack of Energy
- Upset Stomach
Understanding the Risk
Negative stress can lead to other more serious, long-term issues for a variety of reasons. It is best to seek help when the symptoms of stress persistently interfere with day-to-day life or lead to dangerous thoughts and behaviors. Some of the risks of untreated chronic stress include:
- Depression/Anxiety: Anxiety disorders can occur when the symptoms of stress continue after the stressor, or perceived threat, is gone. Chronic stress can also lead to depression if the feelings of anxiousness or irritability become suppressed or unresolved for long periods of time.
- Diabetes: The American Diabetes Association shares stress can cause or worsen cases of Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes by raising blood sugar levels, activating fat cells and increasing blood pressure. It also contributes to insulin resistance, making it more difficult for the pancreas to secrete insulin.
- Gastrointestinal Issues: The gut is often referred to as the “second brain” for the way it impacts mental and physical well-being. Chronic stress shows short and long-term effects on gut health, from a less efficient immune system to a heightened risk of digestive disorders including: Crohn’s Disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), constipation, diarrhea and food allergies.
- Heart Disease: Researchers have found that chronic stress may pose a risk for heart disease, the leading killer of men and women in America. Not only can it contribute to a raise in blood pressure and cholesterol levels, it may lead to overeating and inactivity. Interestingly enough, laughter and happiness can lower your blood pressure, reduce the risk of stroke, heart attacks and other cardiovascular problems.
- Obesity: Chronic stress has been linked to biochemical changes in the body that trigger cravings, change digestion and increase appetite. Pairing our bodies natural desire for comfort foods with the convenience of drive-thru restaurants and processed meals is a recipe for disaster under stressful circumstances.
Dr. Duane J. DiFranco is a senior medical director at Blue Care Network. More health and stress management tips can be found here.