Stress is a normal part of life. In fact, it's the reason why we get anything done. Small amounts of stress have a positive impact on our lives. It's why we study for exams and complete day-to-day tasks. However, long-term stress has an adverse effect on our mental wellness.
What is stress?
Stress is a normal reaction we have when things change. It comes in two forms, i.e., short-term stress and long-term stress.
1) Short-term stress
Short-term stress is good. Our human bodies are designed to react to it in productive ways.
For example, if you are experiencing a deadline for a project or taking care of children, stress will be present, but it doesn't cause several issues. In fact, it helps us overcome them.
It keeps us alert and motivated and helps us remain ready to support ourselves and our loved ones from danger.
2) Long-term stress
Our bodies aren't meant to experience long-term pressure. Long-term pressure causes stress for an extended period.
Our mental health will deteriorate, and our bodies will shut down when this happens, and day-to-day tasks feel more like a chore. These are signs of wear and tear in both our mental and physical health. This will give way to other issues.
Long-term stress can cause adverse effects on both your body and mind. Some of the physical symptoms include:
1) Headaches, aches, and pains
Stress makes our bodies tense and spasm, which causes us to experience aches and pain. It's the same logic with headaches. The pain there occurs when our neck and scalp muscles tense, causing pain.
2) Chest pains and rapid heartbeat
During stress, our body produces a hormone called epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) into the bloodstream. Once it circulates throughout your body, it causes several changes.
The heart beats faster than average, and blood pressure goes up. As a result, many people experience chest pain, sweating, or shortness of breath.
3) Upset Stomach
This may sound strange, but our stomach has a significant connection to our mental health, according to Francisco J. Marrero, MD, a gastroenterologist with the Digestive Disease Institute, states that our gut is the largest area of nerves outside our brains. Meaning it is highly responsive to stress.
When our stress levels increase, hormones and neurotransmitters are released in the body. This can negatively impact gut motility or the way our intestines and stomach move waste through the body, causing us to have diarrhea, constipation, or nausea. Also, stress can affect the balance of bacteria in our gut, causing stomach aches.
Exhaustion is the most common symptom associated with chronic stress, depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders. It leaves the body and mind in a constant state of tension and high alertness.
During prolonged stress, your brain constantly scans the environment for external and internal threats, leading to emotional distress and physical tension. This constant state of high alertness leaves your mental and physical exhaustion, which may persist even after a long sleep.
5) Trouble falling Asleep
Excessive stress makes it hard to both fall and remain asleep throughout the night. One reason is because of the excessive worries and fears that accompany stress. When a person attempts to fall asleep, those thoughts continue and cause numerous sleep disturbances.
6) Weak immune system
Stress triggers the release of cortisol, a hormone that, in small amounts, can enhance immunity through its anti-inflammatory properties. However, prolonged cortisol release can result in inflammation and hinder the immune support, thereby affecting our immune systems' ability to combat invading pathogens.
Pressure and Mental Health
Ongoing pressure is linked to poor mental health. This results in chronic stress that can cause and worsen and adds to stress and mental health issues. Some of them that resulted from stress are:
Anxiety and Depression
Chronic untreated stress can play a role in developing major anxiety and depression disorders. One reason is due to the effects of stress in the long run. Long-term stress is a stepping stone that leads to anxiety and other health issues.
This leads to fatigue, being easily irritated, constant feelings of worrying, and much more. All of which leads to social withdrawal and relationship strain. This may trigger symptoms of depression or intensify them in people who already have it.
1) Bad memory
Short-term stress is actually beneficial in remembering information. It can help us with focus, energy, and attention. But during long-term stress, areas of your brain become overstimulated, which can cause a person to forget what happened.
The hippocampus is a part of your brain. Its role is learning and memory. When we're stressed, the body releases hormones that interfere with our hippocampus' ability to create new memories.
Chronic stress can even shrink this part of the brain, which explains why we may have difficulty recalling events when experiencing chronic stress. And may also have trouble focusing and remembering things over time.
2) Cognitive Function
Prolonged periods of stress can cause brain cells to deteriorate. Causing a decline in attention span, memory, response inhibition, and cognitive flexibility.
3) Substance Abuse
Stress is a big factor in developing an addiction. The risk is higher if you were exposed to stress and substances in early childhood.
Dopamine, serotonin, and melatonin, known as natural dopamine boosters, are chemicals that reduce the symptoms of stress, providing temporary relief, happiness, calmness, and better sleep. However, these effects are not long-lasting and do not address the underlying damage caused by stress or substance use.
Substance abuse worsens stress. Many people are unaware of this and go back to substance abuse for relief.
Additionally, the downside to substance abuse is that it can cause changes in our brains. These changes affect neurotransmitters, which are how our brains send signals.
Stress and substance abuse can also damage dopamine receptors. Dopamine receptors "catch" signals that help us to feel good. When these signals or receptors are damaged, it becomes harder to feel happy. This can lead to depression, anxiety, or other mood disorders.
There are several stress management techniques that reduce overall stress levels. Some of them include:
Exercising reduces stress by making your brain release a hormone called endorphins. This chemical is a natural mood elevator and painkiller. Additionally, exercising can counteract the harmful effects of stress, like cardiovascular health, by lowering blood pressure, improving cholesterol, and controlling weight.
People who exercise also have a reduced physical response to stress. Their heart rate and blood pressure don't go up as high as people under stress who don't exercise.
2) Surround yourself with nature
According to research, nature exposure can calm our nerves. Being in nature, or even viewing scenes of nature, helps lessen our stress, anger, and fear and increases pleasant feelings.
Exposure to nature not only makes you feel better emotionally. By reducing stress, nature can improve your physical well-being by lowering your heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension. It may even reduce mortality.
3) Deep breathing
When we breathe deeply, our brains receive a better supply of oxygen, which stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and promotes a state of calmness. This reduces our stress levels, lower blood pressure, and heart rate, and reduces physical and mental tension.
Breathing exercises are easy to learn. You can do them whenever you want, and it doesn't require any special equipment or tools. You can try different breathing exercises to see which works best for you. One popular one you can try is box breathing.
To do a box breathing exercise, you use a four-second rule. Start by breathing in for four seconds. Hold it in for the same amount of time. Breathe out for four seconds. Now, breathe out for four seconds, and you're done. Do this for at least a month for five minutes straight, two times a day. You'll notice the difference.
4) Build a support system
Having someone you can trust and talk to or being in an organization or having a religion to turn to can reduce your stress level and your risk of heart disease. Having at least that one person you can rely on takes a lot of the heavy burden off and improves your mental well-being.
If you already have heart disease, this network may provide a sense of community and emotional support, which can help reduce your risk for heart attack.
How is stress diagnosed?
Stress isn't measurable with tests. Only the person experiencing it can confirm if it's present and how severe it is. A healthcare provider may use some questionnaires to help understand your stress and how it affects your life.
If you have chronic stress, your doctor can identify symptoms caused by stress. For example, high blood pressure, aches, and pain.
Stress is a normal reaction that everyone goes through. Short-term stress has its advantages. On the flip side, long-term stress causes problems with our mental and physical health. To combat this, we need to take time for ourselves. Put down the devices and take a stroll in the park, exercise, do yoga or breathing exercises, or all of the above. This way, we'd be able to calm our nerves and live a much healthier life.