Chronic Stress Can Cause More than a Headache
Experts at Northwestern Medical Group caution patients about the health effects of excessive stress and offer tips on stress management
With a great deal of dispiriting economic news affecting the country, it’s no surprise that more than half of Americans report being plagued by stress over financial concerns. But doctors caution that prolonged stress and negative emotions can take a toll on the body.
“Stress can affect the body in many ways,” says Kimbra Bell, MD internist at Northwestern Medical Group. “From aches and pains, to poor sleep and an increased risk of disease, stress can cause serious health consequences over time.”
In short-term situations, such as public speaking or working to meet a deadline, stress is a normal physical response of increased adrenaline that can actually help sharpen your mental alertness and memory. Stress also acts as an innate “flight or fight” response to situations in which you sense danger, causing your energy level to rise to a point that allows you to react quickly. However, prolonged stress places a great amount of pressure on the body, and can quickly have a negative impact on overall health.
“The longer your stress responses are activated, the harder it is to shut them off,” says Bell, “Chronic stress causes significant disruptions to the normal functioning of the body and mind, and we simply aren’t built to sustain these effects.”
Bell notes that stress can manifest in many ways, so it’s important to be aware of warning signs and stay on top of your health. Some of the most common effects of stress include:
- Negative emotional changes – Lingering stress can result in anxiety, irritation and even depression, all of which can affect relationships and work performance, as well as lead to unhealthy behaviors such as drinking and smoking.
- Sleep loss – Recent surveys show that one-third of Americans report losing sleep due to the economy and other stress factors. As stress keeps the body energized and alert, the nervous system remains in overdrive, thus making it difficult to fall and stay asleep.
- Aches and pains – As the most commonly reported trigger of headaches, stress creates chemical imbalances in the brain that can lead to migraine-level pain. Jaw tension, teeth grinding and back and neck pain are also common byproducts of stress.
- Weakened immunity – Stress hormones can suppress the body’s immune system and make you more vulnerable to colds, flu and other infections.
- Weight changes – During times of stress, many people are more inclined to grab high-sugar, high-fat “comfort” foods, which can lead to unwanted pounds and lead to an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes. On the flip side, others shy away from food during tough times, which deprives your body of vital nutrients and can also contribute to poor health and illness.
“Since it’s impossible to live a stress-free life, it is important to identify stressors and take steps to address them so your anxiety level does not continue to build over time,” says Bell, who offers the following tips for handling stress and maintaining a sense of balance during challenging times.
- Find inner peace – Practicing meditation, yoga or other relaxation techniques can help clear your mind and help you regain focus.
- Exercise – Regular exercise can reduce stress, help you relax and alleviate muscle tension.
- Get plenty of sleep – Prolonged sleep loss can negatively affect the body’s ability to function. To help you get an adequate amount of sleep, experts recommend you create a comfortable, distraction-free environment and maintain a regular schedule and bedtime routine.
- Eat healthy – Eating regular, well-balanced meals to get the essential nutrients your body needs for optimal functioning throughout the day.
- Talk through it – Things are often not as bad as they may seem. Talking with a friend, loved-one or health professional can offer support, help you process the situation, collect your thoughts and devise a plan of action to turn things around.
Equally important in averting the long-term effects of stress is a proactive approach to personal health. Annual physicals and screening tests play an important role in preventing illness and detecting conditions such as cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure, both of which have been associated with chronic stress.
“Talk with your doctor about changes in your health that may be due to stress,” says Bell. “From diet and exercise to talk therapy and integrative medicine, there are a number of steps you can take to find relief, and it’s important to do so before symptoms become more serious.”
For more information or to schedule an appointment with a physician, visit nmg.nm.org or call 312-926-DOCS (3627).