Stress is an inevitable part of life, and it can have negative effects on both your mental and physical health. Prolonged stress can lead to various health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, and even death. However, there are ways to manage stress and stay healthy. In this article, we will discuss four ways to stay healthy when stressed.
What is stress?
Stress is the body's response to a perceived threat or challenge, and it can be triggered by a variety of factors, including work, finances, relationships, and health. When you experience stress, your body releases hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which prepare you for a fight or flight response. Stress can involve physical, mental, and emotional responses, and it is a normal part of life. In fact, stress can even have positive effects by increasing productivity, creativity, and motivation.
However, when stress becomes intense and starts to interfere with daily life, it may be chronic stress. Chronic stress can cause symptoms such as inability to concentrate, anxiety, constant worrying, feeling overwhelmed, chest pain, and rapid heartbeat. Chronic stress can even, in extreme cases, cause death. Fortunately, chronic stress is treatable, and with the right help, it can be managed effectively.
Ultimately, stress is the body's response when a person feels overwhelmed by a situation and perceives that they cannot meet its demands. This can be caused by a variety of factors, such as having multiple responsibilities at once, like having a deadline at work while also caring for a family. For example, a person may have a paper due, work nights, and a test on the same day, which can be overwhelming for some individuals. When a person feels unable to meet the demands of a situation, it causes stress.
The Effects of Stress on Health
Stress is a complex response that can affect both mental and physical health. While short-term stress can be helpful in certain situations, chronic stress can have negative effects on your health. It can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Additionally, stress can weaken your immune system, making you more susceptible to illnesses such as colds and the flu.
When stress becomes chronic, it can alter the brain's size, structure, and function down to the level of your genes. Chronic stress can impact the hypothalamus pituitary adrenal axis, the system that controls your body's response to stress. When your brain senses a stressful situation, your HPA axis is activated, and cortisol is released, which prepares your body for instant action. However, high levels of cortisol over an extended period can damage your brain.
Chronic stress can increase the activity level and number of neural connections in the amygdala, which is responsible for fear in the brain. As cortisol levels increase, electric signals in the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with learning, memory, and stress control, deteriorate. The hippocampus also inhibits the activity of the HPA axis, so when it weakens, so does your ability to control your stress. Moreover, cortisol can cause your brain to shrink in size and lose synaptic connections between neurons, resulting in the shrinking of your prefrontal cortex. This part of your brain regulates behaviors like concentration, decision-making, judgment, and social interaction. It also leads to fewer new brain cells being made in the hippocampus, which can make it harder for you to learn and remember things, and eventually lead to serious mental problems like depression and Alzheimer's disease.
Stress can have significant effects on your health, particularly on your cardiovascular health. Chronic stress can cause endothelial dysfunction, which compromises your vessels' ability to dilate when under stress, as well as increase pro-inflammatory markers and create a nervous system imbalance. Sleep is also affected by stress, which can cause problems with cardiovascular health, especially in women. However, if you are under stress but are still sleeping well, you may be protected from the adverse effects of stress.
Clinicians should inquire about psychosocial factors such as depression, anxiety, sleep, and a history of abuse or trauma, as these factors are essential in screening for potential cardiovascular risks. As psychosocial factors matter in cardiovascular health through novel pathways, it is necessary to consider them a part of the vital information that clinicians should screen for. Efforts are underway to include measures related to psychosocial factors in standard medical records.
It's essential to recognize that stress is a significant risk factor and must be taken into account to manage and reduce cardiovascular risk effectively. Luckily, there are many ways to reverse the effects of cortisol on your stressed brain. So, don't feel defeated by the pressures of daily life; get in control of your stress before it takes control of you.
4 ways to stay healthy when stressed
Mindfulness is a technique that involves being present in the moment and paying attention to your thoughts and feelings without judgment. It has been shown to be effective in reducing stress and improving overall well-being. Some ways to practice mindfulness include meditation, deep breathing exercises, and yoga.
Here is a guided meditation you can try for relaxation in times of stress:
Take a moment to ground yourself through your senses. Light a scented candle or use an essential oil in a diffuser. Sit or lie down comfortably and notice your thoughts, the sounds, and what you see. Close your eyes if you choose to do so. Take a deep breath and notice how your body takes care of you naturally. Breathe deeply, relax, and sink into your body. Let your body have the rest it needs. Notice any tension in your body and do a quick scan from your toes to your head. Take a slow deep breath and let the tension go. Focus your attention on what's around you. Observe any smells, sounds, and feelings on your skin. Take a moment to breathe and focus on your emotions. Name the emotion, accept it, and let it pass. Take a moment to bring something good to mind, something you're grateful for. Sit in that feeling of being present for a moment. Savor this moment of taking care of yourself. When you're ready, slowly open your eyes and begin to move around. Take good care of yourself today.
2. Exercise regularly
One of the most effective ways to stay healthy when stressed is through exercise. Exercise not only benefits physical health but also has a positive impact on mental well-being.
When you exercise, your body releases endorphins, which are natural mood boosters. Regular exercise can also help you sleep better at night. Even a brief workout of 30 minutes a day, such as walking, jogging, or doing a workout at home, can significantly reduce stress levels.
Furthermore, exercise has been found to be a powerful tool for the brain. It increases blood flow, delivering essential nutrients and oxygen to the brain. Research has shown that exercise also stimulates the production of growth factors like BDNF, which promote the growth of new brain cells. This is an important finding because it was previously thought that humans couldn't generate new brain cells.
Exercise can also help reduce stress levels by lowering cortisol, a hormone associated with stress. High cortisol levels can lead to the loss of brain tissue more quickly. Regular exercise can, therefore, be an easy way to reduce cortisol levels and protect your brain.
Taking care of your brain through exercise, a healthy diet, stress reduction, and education can help build a store of brain connections that will benefit you in the long run. Exercise is a practical way to keep your brain healthy and functioning at its best. So, whether you choose to go for a walk, hit the gym, or do a home workout, regular exercise is a simple yet powerful way to reduce stress and improve both physical and mental health.
3. Get enough sleep
Sleep is essential for your physical and mental health. When you are stressed, it can be difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep. However, getting enough sleep is crucial for managing stress and staying healthy. Aim to get at least 7-8 hours of sleep each night, and establish a bedtime routine to help you relax and unwind.
Here are some other articles about the benefits of sleep:
Sleep Tight: 7 Tips For Ending Your Day On A Relaxing Note And Getting A Better Night’s Sleep
Meditation For Sleep
What Are Sleep Problems? Understanding The Causes, Effects, And Treatments Of Sleep Disorders
4. Eat a healthy diet
Stress can take a toll on our physical and mental health, but a healthy diet can help us manage stress and maintain overall well-being. Our diet can have a significant impact on stress levels. Cortisol, the stress hormone, is released by the adrenal gland in response to physical or mental threats. Studies have found that a traditional American diet high in fat, sugar, and carbs is associated with higher cortisol levels, while diets rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and polyunsaturated fats can decrease cortisol levels.
To reduce stress levels, incorporate foods that are high in B vitamins, omega-3s, magnesium, and fiber. These can be found in foods like organ meat, beef, chicken, eggs, nutritional yeast, fortified cereals, walnuts, avocados, salmon, chia, flax, olive oil, tuna, mackerel, herring, anchovies, pumpkin seeds, almonds, pistachios, broccoli, bananas, artichokes, spinach, and dark chocolate. On the other hand, alcohol, caffeine, saturated fats, and simple sugars and carbs can increase cortisol levels, so it's best to avoid them.
Stress can have a significant impact on your health, but there are ways to manage it and stay healthy. By practicing mindfulness, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and eating a healthy diet, you can reduce stress and improve your overall well-being.
Q: How does stress affect mental health?
A: Stress can lead to anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems.
Q: Can stress cause physical pain?
A: Yes, stress can cause physical symptoms such as headaches, muscle tension, and stomach problems.
Q: How often should I exercise to manage stress?
A: Aim to exercise for at least 30 minutes a day, whether it's walking, jogging, or doing a workout at home.
Q: Can meditation help with stress?
A: Yes, mindfulness techniques such as meditation can be effective in reducing stress and improving overall well-being.
Q: How can I manage stress at work?
A: Some ways to manage stress at work include setting boundaries, prioritizing tasks, and taking breaks throughout the day.