Stressed? 3 Reasons You Shouldn’t Ignore It
Sometimes, though, this stress response — also called the fight or flight response — doesn’t come in short bursts as nature intended. It can become stuck, even chronic, whether in response to routine worries, extreme situations, one-time traumas or for seemingly no reason at all.
Because stress is a normal part of life, it can be tough to figure out when things are spiraling out of control. Do I just need to buck up, you might ask yourself, or is the stress I’m feeling out of the ordinary — something I need help managing?
The short answer is this: You ignore stress at your own peril because of its ability to affect all aspects of your life. Here are just a few of the things stress can do if left unchecked:
1. Stress can damage your mental and physical health.
The chemical messengers that stress releases into the bloodstream and brain cause heart rate, blood pressure and glucose levels to soar and suppress things like digestion and the immune system. It’s the body’s way of prioritizing only the forces you’ll need to deal with the immediate threat. That’s a smart response when you’re, say, backpedaling from a snake, but it can become a problem if you can’t shake off your stress.
Each person reacts differently to excess stress, but stomach problems, sleep issues, mood disturbances and vulnerability to infection and illness are common. With enough stress, serious problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes, anxiety disorders, depression and heart disease can emerge.
A recent study, in fact, found that the more activity in the stress center of the brain, the more inflammation happens in arteries and in bone marrow, leading to a greater risk of heart attack, stroke and death.
Stress is even thought by researchers to damage certain brain structures, which could explain an increase in conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia in those with chronic stress. Stress isn’t just an uncomfortable feeling, it can be dangerous.
2. Stress can make it harder to control your weight.
If your stress seems to go hand in hand with weight gain, there may be a reason for that, researchers say. A recent University of Florida study found that chronic stress can stimulate production of a protein called betatrophin, which in turn inhibits an enzyme that helps metabolize fat.
As a result, stress can make your body hold on to fat stores by slowing down the fat-burning process.
The study used cell and mice model experiments, and clinical trials are still to come, but the researchers believe the results will translate to humans and are an indication that making an effort to deal with stress can help people maintain a healthy weight.
3. Stress can boost the risk of addiction.
Researchers have long known that people often turn to substances such as alcohol or drugs in an attempt to deal with stress. The problem is that the more a substance is used, the harder it is to capture the same effect. For some, this can spark a vicious cycle that leads to dependence and addiction.
A 2011 study also found that stress and substances feed off each other. Stress, for example, can actually change the way alcohol makes us feel in a way that causes us to drink more and to crave it more. And on the flip side, drinking to cope with stress can actually prolong the time it takes to recover from a stressful event. In short, stress makes it more likely your substance use will become a problem rather than a solution.
Dealing With Stress
So what can be done about stress — other than getting even more stressed thinking about all the negative things it might be doing to you?
There are some simple steps that can have a big impact: exercise, yoga, meditation, setting limits on work and making time for social connections have all been shown to be powerful therapies.
But if you can’t seem to shake off stress no matter what you do, it’s time to reach out for professional help from experts who can help you understand what’s behind your stress, teach you ways to change your thinking patterns and help you develop healthy strategies for managing it. The sooner you act, the more able you’ll be to control stress when it comes rather than letting it control you.