We’ve all experienced stress. It’s what causes clammy hands and makes your heart beat faster before a job interview; the headache and tense neck muscles when you’re under a tight deadline at work; or the pit-in-your-stomach feeling when you forget to pay your credit card bill on time. Knowing what stress is and how it affects your body can help you control it, so it doesn’t affect your health.
What is stress?
Stress is your body’s natural response to what it perceives as a harmful situation — whether you’re actually in danger or not. These situations can include everyday tasks, like going to work or school, or major life changes, like starting a new job, moving, or a recent health diagnosis.
When you feel threatened, stress causes a chemical reaction in your body that helps you prevent injury. Known as the fight-or-flight response, this reaction increases your heart rate, quickens your breathing, tightens your muscles and raises your blood pressure to prepare you to act and defend yourself.
“The problem is that, in modern times, we are usually fortunate enough to not be confronted by physical threats on a daily basis,” says Dr. Bill Jagiello, D.O., medical director at Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield. “However, our body still perceives certain situations, like crowding, traffic jams and important deadlines as stressful.”
What causes stress varies widely from person to person — what one person may find incredibly stressful may not bother you at all, and vice versa. For example, you might feel stressed if you’re running late and stuck in traffic on your way to work, while someone in the same traffic jam is perfectly content.
Recognizing symptoms of stress
Stress can affect your emotions, behavior, ability to think and physical health. But, because everyone handles stress a little differently, symptoms of stress can vary widely. When you’re stressed, you might experience one, two, or all of these symptoms External Site:
- Headaches, body aches or tense muscles
- Dry mouth or difficulty swallowing
- Upset stomach, diarrhea or nausea
- Chest pain
- Constant worrying or racing thoughts
- Feeling nervous, frustrated or overwhelmed
- Inability to focus or sleep
Normal vs. chronic stress
Experiencing some stress from time to time is perfectly normal and healthy. “A little bit of stress can be a good thing, because it challenges you and keeps you on your toes,” says Dr. Jagiello. “It’s when you have chronic stress that it becomes a problem.”
Chronic stress occurs when your fight-or-flight response doesn’t stop firing, and your body’s stress levels stay elevated much longer than needed for survival. “Instead of responding to a single, immediate threat, your body reacts to the continued exposure of perceived danger,” says Dr. Jagiello.
Long-term, ongoing stress can affect your health, putting you at risk for things like:
- Depression, anxiety and personality disorders
- Cardiovascular disease, including heart disease, high blood pressure, and increased risk of heart attack or stroke
- Obesity and other eating disorders
- Skin and hair problems, including acne, psoriasis, eczema and permanent hair loss
- Gastrointestinal problems, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), acid reflux, and ulcerative colitis
- Sleep disorders like insomnia
How to reduce stress
It’s important to not let stress rule your life. Try these five tips for managing your stress and improving your health.
Find the cause.
If you know what’s stressing you out on a regular basis, you can work to reduce or even eliminate it from your life. If you aren’t sure what’s causing your stress, keep a journal to jot down when you become the most anxious. Once you find a pattern, you can work to reduce what’s triggering your stress.
Practice deep breathing.
Pausing throughout the day and guiding your body through slow, relaxing breaths can help reduce stress levels. Sit or lie down, close your eyes, imagine yourself in a relaxing environment, and slowly take deep breaths in and out. Aim to do this for five to 10 minutes at a time. If you need help, try a mindfulness app External Site or guided breathing program on your smartwatch or wearable fitness device. If you don't have a fitness device, Wellmark members can find exclusive deals and discounts on FitBit® products External Site and other activity trackers through Blue365®.
Get some exercise.
Whether you choose to take the stairs at work, go to your local yoga studio, or get on the elliptical, exercising regularly will help relax your body and mind, as well as improve your mood. The more you do it, the faster you’ll see results.
If you’re feeling stressed, it’s important to take your mind off what’s bothering you — if only for a few minutes. Try meditation, listening to your favorite music, or going for a walk outside.
Do things you enjoy.
When was the last time you did something that made you feel good? Setting aside time each day for relaxing hobbies — even just 30 minutes — can help relieve stress. Some suggestions include: Reading a book, working on a puzzle, or doing a craft project like knitting or scrapbooking.
Chronic stress can be a serious health issue, but if you take steps to manage it you can live a healthy life no matter what problems you face. And, if you find that you're unable to manage stress on your own, talk to your personal doctor.
Blue365® is a discount program available to members who have medical coverage with Wellmark. This is NOT insurance.
Blue365® is a service mark of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association.