Everyone experiences stress from time to time. It’s a normal reaction to the pressures of daily life or traumatic events. While everyone copes with stress in their own way, it’s important not to let it get out of control.
Stress is a part of life for everyone. Even positive life events like weddings or a new job can have stressful effects. However, when stress interferes with daily life, it can cause serious health consequences. To protect your physical and mental well-being, learn how stress affects your body and mind — and how to manage it.
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What Happens During Stress
Stress is how your brain and body respond to any type of challenge, or stressor.
Stressors come in many forms. They can be routine, such as pressures from daily life, school, work, and relationships. They can be sudden, such as an accident or job loss. They can be short-term, such as a divorce. Or long-term, such as a chronic illness.
Stress triggers your body’s “fight or flight” survival response. It helps you manage a perceived threat or keeps you out of harm’s way.
According to the American Psychological Association, these are changes your body typically experiences when faced with stressors:
- Your pulse quickens
- Your breathing gets faster
- Your muscles tense
- Your brain uses more oxygen and increases activity
A reaction in your brain also triggers an increase in the production of steroid hormones called glucocorticoids, or cortisol. Known as the “stress hormone,” cortisol provides the energy needed to deal with the stressor.
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How Stress Affects Your Health
Your body can take small doses of stress. But ongoing, or chronic, stress can impact your mental and physical health.
With chronic stress, the body never gets the signal to return to normal. It stays in survival mode. Chronic stress can affect many systems in your body, including the cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal, nervous, reproductive, and respiratory systems.
Too much cortisol can disrupt communication between your body’s endocrine and immune responses. This can lead to various health issues, including depression, chronic fatigue, metabolic disorders (e.g., diabetes, obesity), and immune disorders.
Signs and Symptoms of Stress
It’s important to take stress seriously. If you’ve been dealing with stress for a while, you may not realize it’s out of control. Do these common signs and symptoms apply to you?
- Anger, tension, or irritability
- Anxiety and fear about the future
- Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
- Feeling numb or powerless
- Loss of interest in normal activities
- Changes in appetite
- Sleep problems, such as falling asleep or staying asleep
- Nightmares and recurring thoughts
- Increased use of alcohol, abusing prescription drugs, and illicit drug use
- Sadness, crying, and other signs of depression
- Headaches, back pains, and stomach problems
Self-Care Tips to Manage Stress
You can’t control the stressors life throws at you. But you can try these self-care tips to better handle your stress reaction, especially when you practice them proactively and routinely:
Practice daily self-care. Eat a healthy, balanced diet. Get good, consistent sleep. Engage in daily exercise.
Incorporate relaxation techniques. Mindfulness meditation, breathing exercises, or yoga can help.
Connect with family and friends. A good social support network helps you get through stressful situations. Reach out to them for emotional and practical support.
Stay active. Take mental and physical breaks. Getting together with friends, volunteering or even walking the dog can provide a much-needed distraction.
Prioritize tasks. Decide what you have to get done now, and what can wait for later. Learn to say “no” to new responsibilities if you’re overwhelmed.
Avoid alcohol and drugs. The problems caused by using drugs and alcohol to cope with stress outweigh any short-term relief. They can lead to dependency or overdose. Instead of relieving your stress, alcohol and drugs can add to it.
Get professional help. If you’re overwhelmed by stress, talk to your doctor. They can recommend a mental health provider that can help.
For more information, call UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital at 1-877-624-4100 or 412-624-1000.
UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is a nationally recognized leader in mental health clinical care, research, and education. It is one of the nation’s foremost university-based psychiatric care facilities through its integration with the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. UPMC Western Psychiatric is the hub of UPMC Western Behavioral Health, a network of nearly 60 community-based programs providing specialized mental health and addiction care for children, adolescents, adults, and seniors throughout western Pennsylvania.