We all live busy lives, and we all have stressful things happen sometimes. Fortunately or unfortunately, that’s just part of life these days, and a little bit of stress (with recovery in between) actually has some benefits for our health. But significant, chronic stress is so detrimental to our health, that I believe it’s one of the top 2 contributors to many of our modern-day health epidemics, like obesity and anxiety. Today’s focus on how stress impacts health is not meant to scare you, but rather to serve as a wake up call and reminder to prioritize your own mental health. If you feel chronically stressed, you probably are, and you’d be well-served to catch it and start reversing it now, rather than experience some of these side effects years down the road.
What are different stress types?
Our bodies experience stress in a variety of ways and from a variety of sources. Acute stress is a brief uptick of stress, usually related to a situation (like falling down, taking a test, or getting in a fight). It rises quickly and dissipates eventually, once the situation has passed. This happens to all of us, and while it may cause momentary high blood pressure, rapid heart rate, digestive discomfort, or tension, it’s generally less harmful. When the acute stress is more significant, though (like when someone is assaulted or gets in a terrible car accident), its impacts can be long-lasting.
Chronic stress is stress that does not dissipate naturally. It is a response to emotional pressure, and often results in feeling overwhelmed or run-down. It may be chronic stress related to a situation (like a sick relative) or even related to personality. I, for one, tend to put enormous pressure on myself – you’ll read more about that below. This results in chronic stress that, if unmanaged, makes me feel less than my best! This is one major reason why my morning routine is SO critical for me! In general, this is the type of stress that has longer-lasting health impacts.
Did you know that your body interprets all types of stress in similar ways? Eustress is positive stress, and occurs when we’re planning a wedding, going on a first date, or anticipating a positive job change. Even exercising is a form of stress on your body! So while all of those things may be good, they can all pile on top of each other. For example, when I was planning my wedding (eustress!), training for a half marathon (exercise stress), applying to business school (eustress, I guess), working 80+ hour weeks and traveling every week (chronic stress), and generally putting a ton of pressure on my self (chronic stress), my body was not happy. There are large periods of time during that year that I don’t even remember, which I personally believe is a side effect of all of the stress.
My personal story
Speaking of my own stress, I want to tell you a story. This can be a bit controversial, and I’m not saying that my story applies to everyone’s story, but I’m telling you about my body and my interpretation of some of its experiences. You may not know that I had heart surgery in 2001. I began having abnormal heart palpitations and a fluttering heart rate, which (after many inconclusive tests) got diagnosed as “well, it must be a birth defect that just happened to pop up now.” Thankfully, the surgery went without complications, but the doctor said he wasn’t really sure if he fixed the issue or not. My symptoms eventually subsided. Let me tell you what was happening in that period of my life. I was halfway through high school and beginning to develop my chronic over-achiever tendencies. I was President of many extracurriculars, on the dance team and dancing about 20 hours per week, in all honors classes, working my way towards the top of the class, and applying to colleges. One of my best friends was battling (and lost her battle with) cancer, and my family was undergoing some stressful times. Sound like a recipe for stress? It was, and I firmly believe that I would not have needed heart surgery if I had realized I was too stressed, and had gotten my stress under control.
Fast forward to 2017. It wasn’t a particularly stressful period of my life, but the previous 16 years were filled with an (amazing but stressful!) Harvard education, a very demanding consulting job, business school (which in itself, was actually not too stressful, but being President of three extracurriculars and member of several others kept me on the verge of overwhelm), and entrepreneurship (which, if you are an entrepreneur yourself, you know is filled with lots and lots of eustress!). I started having kidney issues, and again received a diagnosis that went something like “well, it must be a birth defect that just happened to pop up now.” Even though I felt that it was somehow related to stress, the issues were exacerbating, and I felt it was the safest decision to have kidney surgery, which I did (you may not have even known I was in the hospital for 8 days last year!).
I have no way of knowing exactly how stress contributed to my heart or kidney issues, but my gut feeling is that it was largely responsible. Honestly, stress has impacted my health in a few other ways that I won’t go into here, as well. But these two major wake-up calls are constant reminders to me to manage my stress levels and take breaks, and I hope this post can be the same reminder to you.
10 ways stress impacts your health
- Digestive difficulties. When we are stressed, our bodies divert blood flow to our extremities, and shut down “non-critical” processes like digestion. To use a crude example, that’s why people sometimes lose control of their bladder or bowels when under extreme stress. Even when day-to-day stress amounts, issues like bloating, gassiness, diarrhea, and constipation are frequent in those who are more stressed out. Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or IBS, is dramatically exacerbated with stress, as are other digestion-related conditions like Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis.
- Weight gain, blood sugar imbalance, and cravings. Cortisol, a hormone that increases when you’re under stress, is linked to cravings for sugar and fat. So if you feel like you’re craving more ice cream when you’re stressed, it’s probably not just “in your head” … it’s in your hormones! These cravings, combined with the unstable blood sugar that often results from stress, as well as the tendency to grab prepared and less healthy foods when stressed, often lead to weight gain.
- Skin and hair troubles. Chronic stress or extreme acute stress can lead to hair loss and worsening of skin conditions like psoriasis and eczema. On a more frequent basis, stress can lead to acne breakouts or dull, dry skin.
- Brain fog, memory loss, and other cognitive issues. An excess of cortisol can interfere with your brain’s ability to store memories, can interfere with the regions of the brain that govern self-control, can limit your productivity, and can cause brain fog. Have you ever noticed that you have to read a paragraph over multiple times when you are stressed?
- Headaches. Stress hormones like adrenaline (epinephrine) and cortisol can cause changes in vascular tone, which can lead to migraines or tension headaches in those who are prone. It can also cause insomnia, which in itself often triggers headaches.
- Moodiness and irritability. Speaking out of no personal experience at all (ha!), it’s clear to most of us that stress can cause moodiness and irritability. It’s a lot harder to snap at your spouse when you’re in a lounge chair on a beachy island than it is when you’re driving home in traffic and he forgot to pick up the groceries, right?
- Decreased heart health. Feeling stressed about an upcoming presentation will (likely) not give you a heart attack. But feeling consistently stressed over time has a direct, significant impact on the health of your heart. In fact, a 2017 study showed a 13-fold higher risk of having a heart attack in those who were under significant financial stress, and a 2013 study of 200,000 people showed that those with significant work stress had a 23% higher risk of heart attack. Your heart is (obviously) precious and critical, and you can’t get much done without it. If for no other reason than this, consider the grave impact of stress on your health.
- Hormonal imbalance. I’ve mentioned cortisol many times; it’s a hormone that increases during times of stress. Aside from the impacts of high cortisol itself, an excess can also result in imbalances in other hormones, like sex hormones and thyroid hormones. This can lead to a range of symptoms like low libido, abnormal menstrual periods, and much more.
- Decreased immunity. Stress inhibits your immune system’s ability to fight off pathogens, like those that cause the common cold, so you may find yourself getting sick more often when you’re stressed. It can also amplify your immune system’s response to less dangerous antigens like pollen, which makes everyday allergies worse.
- Everything else. Stress impacts the weakest part of your body. We all have weaker areas that tend to do fine under normal situations, but flare up under periods of extreme stress. If you’re prone to digestive issues, you’ll likely experience constipation, diarrhea, or bloating when you are more stressed (if so, you’ll want to check out my webinar on causes and resolutions for bloating!). If your lungs tend to be weaker, you may experience symptoms of asthma or shortness of breath. The variety of potential symptoms of stress is one reason stress is so hard to diagnose as the root cause of a person’s issue, but more times than not, when one of my clients has an issues pop up, we can tie it to an increase of stress (and resolve it by carefully and strategically working to lower stress).
Ready to learn how to manage your stress? Join my *free* webinar next Monday 10/29/18 at 6:30pm CT by registering here!
Now it’s your turn … What do you notice most when you are stressed? Do any of these surprise you?
Thanks a lot for sharing both your personal story and amazing info on stress impact!
“Stress impacts the weakest part of your body. ” – this one hits the spot. It can literally be used as a detection method for our week spots. I tend to have dandruff and itchy scalp issues when under stress, for example. It took me a while to make the connection!
Many recent studies have shown that stress wreaks havoc on our gut microbiota. This effect hides behind numerous physical and mental symptoms of stress.
It’s interesting that physical activity, a type of stress, is actually among the best natural anti-stress therapies 🙂
Best wishes and keep it up!
Such a great realization on your scalp health, Alex! And yes, so fascinating on the microbiota. I’m finishing up reading “The Mind-Gut Connection,” which I really recommend on this topic! Your linked article has some great stress reduction tips, too.
Thanks, Megan! Glad you like it.
True that — this complex connection between our gut and mind (the entire body, actually) never ceases to amaze! According to recent studies, supplementation with certain probiotic strains can alleviate the symptoms of different mental disorders and even autism spectrum disorders!
I’ll definitely check out the book, thanks!