5 minute read

A spotlight on stress & its effects on overall health

Published June 11, 2024

Life has a way of throwing us curveballs, and it's normal for our bodies to react. This reaction is the body's natural stress response, designed to help us navigate difficult situations. But when stress becomes long-term or chronic, it can have serious effects on health. While stress is part of everyday life, we each have a limit for what we can manage. Knowing and respecting your limit is essential for maintaining health and finding balance.¹

What happens in the body during the stress response?

Everyone experiences stress – it's our body's way of responding to pressure. Stress can trigger a reaction in your body, known as the "fight-or-flight" response. It prepares you to face the threat (fight) or flee the danger (flight).² 

This reaction can cause³: 

  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased breathing
  • Elevated blood pressure levels
  • Elevated blood sugar levels
  • Elevated cortisol “stress hormone” levels
  • Tightened muscles
  • Sweating
  • Shaking

Is all stress the same? What are common causes of stress?

No, not all stress is the same. Stress has many forms, ranging from brief to long-lasting, motivating to overwhelming. Below are 4 main types of stress and what might trigger them:

  1. Eustress (pronounced you-stress) is a beneficial type of stress. It's often brief and makes you feel upbeat, motivated, focused, or excited. You can feel it when you start a new job, take on a new challenge, go on a first date, or learn a new skill.⁴
  2. Acute stress is a common, short-lived reaction that can happen several times each day. You can feel it when you have a close call on the road, get into an argument, miss a deadline, wake up late, or nothing seems to go right in your day.⁵
  3. Episodic acute stress is when you regularly experience episodes of acute stress. You can feel it when challenges come one after another without the chance to fully recover. This start-and-stop stress pattern might keep you on high alert, worrying what could happen next.²
  4. Chronic stress is different from other forms of stress. It doesn't happen all at once or in episodes. Instead, the pressure builds and becomes overwhelming and exhausting over time. Chronic stress can creep in when the pressures keep piling on: daily life, money, work, or any ongoing stressful situation. It's that constant strain, day after day, that can eventually lead to the symptoms of chronic stress.⁶

So, when it comes to stress—how long is too long?

Everyone reacts to stress in their own way. We all have limits to how much stress we can manage and different methods for managing it. Because of this, there isn't a set timeframe for when stress becomes "too long.” But there are some important clues:

How can I tell if I’m under too much stress?

Stress is a normal part of daily life, but too much can throw your emotional and physical health off balance. Here are some signs that stress could be affecting you⁹ ¹⁰:

  • Diarrhea, constipation, or upset stomach
  • Elevated cortisol levels 
  • Body aches or pains
  • Stiff jaw or neck
  • Headaches
  • Feeling tired
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Low energy
  • Irritability
  • Forgetfulness
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Issues with sex or intimacy
  • Alcohol or substance misuse

If you experience stress over a long period of time, it could become chronic—unless you take action.¹⁰

Can stress impact my health?

In short, yes, our bodies are on this journey with us. While they are designed to experience and react to stress,² that doesn't mean they are without limits. Our bodies might not speak, but they send us signals when chronic stress starts to take its toll. It might start as a whisper. A headache here, an upset stomach there. But these small warnings have the potential to grow into a full-blown alarm.¹⁰

The ongoing physical and mental strain is what defines chronic stress. It creates a long-term drain on the body,¹ raising the risk of³ ⁷ ⁹:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Digestive issues
  • Weakened immune system
  • Skin issues
  • Sleep problems 
  • Headaches or migraines
  • Missed periods
  • Infertility
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Addiction
  • Worsened existing health conditions

What can I do to lower my stress levels?

It's important to learn healthy ways to manage stress that can shield you from the harmful effects of chronic stress. You might need to experiment to find what works best for you. This might mean short-term tweaks or big lifestyle changes.⁶ Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Practicing yoga, meditation, tai chi, or qi gong
  • Listening to music or playing a musical instrument
  • Spending time in nature or gardening
  • Trying breathwork exercises
  • Engaging in regular exercise
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Prioritizing quality sleep
  • Adjusting your routine
  • Dedicating more time to hobbies and interests
  • Setting boundaries and saying "no" when needed
  • Protecting your schedule from overcommitment
  • Leaning on your support system of family and friends
  • Seeking professional help from a therapist or doctor, if needed
  • Checking your cortisol levels to understand how your body responds to stress

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  1. American Psychological Association (APA). Stress effects on the body. Accessed June 4, 2024. https://www.apa.org/topics/stress/body 
  2. Cleveland Clinic. Stress. Accessed June 4, 2024. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/11874-stress 
  3. Harvard Health Publishing. Understanding the stress response. Accessed June 4, 2024. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response
  4. Merriam-Webster. Eustress. Accessed June 4, 2024. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/eustress
  5. Verywell Mind. All about acute stress. Accessed June 4, 2024. https://www.verywellmind.com/all-about-acute-stress-3145064 
  6. American Psychological Association (APA). Stress won’t go away? Maybe you are suffering from chronic stress. Accessed June 4, 2024. https://www.apa.org/topics/stress/chronic 
  7. The American Institute of Stress (AIS). What is stress? Accessed June 4, 2024. https://www.stress.org/daily-life 
  8. American Psychological Association (APA). Stress in America™ 2022: Concerned for the future, beset by inflation. Accessed June 4, 2024. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2022/concerned-future-inflation 
  9. Medline Plus. Stress and your health. Accessed June 4, 2024. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003211.htm 
  10. American Psychological Association (APA). How stress affects your health. Accessed June 4, 2024. https://www.apa.org/topics/stress/health 
  11. American Psychological Association (APA). Stress in America™ 2023: A nation grappling with psychological impacts of collective trauma. Accessed June 4, 2024. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2023/11/psychological-impacts-collective-trauma