Life’s pressures may do more than tax your brain. Managing chronic stress could improve your mind and your overall health. Here’s what you can do

Don’t let stress harm your health: life’s pressures may do more than tax your brain. Managing chronic stress could improve your mind and your overall health. Here’s what you can do

Face it. Life is stressful. Responsibilities at work and home. Too many things to do and too little time.

Your body has a natural stress response that raises your energy level to prepare you for a crisis and then subsides when the situation ends. That same response kicks in when you face the daily pressures of life. But, when stress continues unabated and your body remains on alert, that once-necessary response becomes harmful. Stress and anxiety can affect your heart, mind, skin and immune system. It can contribute to diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and asthma. It can lower your quality of life.

Although some stress is inescapable, you can modify your lifestyle to lessen or eliminate many of the pressures you face. Set priorities, identify and reduce the stressors in your life, watch your diet, exercise regularly and find activities that help you relax.

“What you’re doing is you’re penciling into your life things that are going to be healthy for the mind and the body that we typically, in our busy schedules, pencil out,” said Leo Pozuelo, M.D., a staff psychiatrist with The Cleveland Clinic Department of Psychiatry and Psychology. “The message is taking control of stress.”

Here’s a look at how stress affects your body and what you can do to counteract it.

THE MIND-BODY CONNECTION

The autonomic nervous system controls heart rate and other organ functions, and it triggers the stress response, which includes the release of hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline that elevate heart rate and other functions. When a crisis ends, a relaxation response gradually returns the body’s systems to normal. But constant stress creates an imbalance, and the body cannot return to normal or can lose the ability to respond to stress. This process can have the following effects:

Cardiovascular system: Excess stress can elevate your cortisol and raise your blood pressure and cholesterol levels, both risk factors for heart attack and stroke.

Metabolism: The stress response can raise blood-sugar (glucose) levels. Chronic high glucose can lead to increased insulin production, insulin resistance and, eventually, type 2 diabetes.

The immune system: Stress hormones essentially prompt the body’s immune cells to stop fighting, inhibiting their ability to fight viruses or bacteria and making you more susceptible to colds and flu.

The mind: Stress can cause anxiety and depression, and can affect mental function. Dr. Pozuelo said he often sees patients under stress who complain of cognitive problems.

Digestive system: People under stress regularly complain of stomachaches and diarrhea. Researchers continue to examine if stress contributes to stomach ulcer formation or inflammatory bowel disorders, but no consistent or definite link with these disorders has yet been proven.

Other effects of stress: Chronic stress has been shown to aggravate dermatological conditions such as atopic dermatitis (eczema), hives, psoriasis and hair loss (alopecia). Stress also is a common asthma trigger. Additionally, stress may cause back pain or exacerbate pain levels in general.

People under stress often live unhealthy lives. Some seek relief from alcohol or eating “comfort food” excessively, but doing so often has the opposite effect. Many people under stress lose sleep, skip meals, eat poor quality meals or fail to exercise.

Key components of stress management include identifying what’s causing your stress, assessing your response to it and learning ways to reduce these stress triggers, or stressors (see box below for tips on managing stress). Most importantly, stress management requires a commitment to change. “We don’t live in a stress-free world. There are some things that we can’t control in this world, but we certainly can modify and control some of the stress that we live with. A lot of that has to come from us,” Dr. Pozuelo said.

Stress and your health

Here are some ways that stress can affect you:

1. The mind: Stress can cause anxiety and affect mental function.

2. Cardiovascular system: Stress can contribute to elevations in blood pressure and cholesterol levels, 2 risk factors for heart attack and stroke.

3. Lungs: Stress can trigger asthma attacks.

4. Digestive system: People under stress regularly complain of stomachaches and diarrhea.

5. Metabolism: Stress can trigger a rise in blood-sugar levels, increased insulin production from the pancreas, insulin resistance and, eventually, type 2 diabetes.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

* Make a list of stressors and determine which ones you can modify. Keep a journal to help identify stressors, how stress makes you feel and how you respond.

* Confide in a friend or loved one who can offer you an objective opinion of how you handle stress. That same person can serve as a coach to help you think more positively, prioritize your activities and figure out which ones are indispensable and which ones you can let go.

* Many people bring stress upon themselves by refusing to say “no” and overextending themselves, so be assertive and set realistic goals.

* Make time for exercise and activities with your family and friends that take your mind off your problems.

* Incorporate into every meal a variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, all of which promote health and well-being.

* Adhere to a regular sleep schedule, and if you have trouble falling asleep, listen to soothing music or do something relaxing until you grow tired.

* People have a myriad of ways to relax, from breathing exercises and hobbies to yoga, meditation and prayer. Some find relief in volunteering and helping others. Find a relaxation technique that works for you.

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