To your health: How stress affects your health

Fri, 07/26/2019 - 10:00am

Whether you have just re-opened your business for the summer season, are going through difficult life moments with family, or adapting to having a new baby in the home, stress is a normal part of life. But what exactly is stress? And how does it impact health in the short- and long-term?

Stress is a reaction the body has to help you physically, mentally and emotionally respond to changes happening around you. This mind and body connection developed in our ancient ancestors as a way to protect them from threats. Faced with danger, the autonomic nervous system kicks the body into gear by flooding it with hormones leading to physiologic changes that help you deal with the problem — whether its running away from a bear coming toward you or frantically checking your backpack for your cell phone the second you realize you may have left it on the ferry.

Stress Affects Everyone

Everyone feels stressed from time to time, but the type of stress and the length of stress can vary. For example, an 11-year old may feel stressed because they have to perform a solo at the school concert in two days; an adult may feel prolonged stress because of financial worries and family responsibilities. We cannot completely remove stress from our lives, but we can know the signs of stress and develop habits to help us cope in a healthy way.

How does stress affect the body?

The stress response in the short-term is meant to keep us motivated, alert, and ready to confront a challenge through an increased heart rate, blood flow to the brain, blood pressure, increased blood sugar levels for energy, and through preparing our muscles for activity. This response is only meant to last for a small period of time, meaning that the body should go back to its normal state (with a normal heart rate, lower blood pressure, more equal blood flow throughout the body, less sugar in the blood, and relaxed muscles) after the specific stress is gone. When the source of stress is constant, the stress response can become chronic and health problems can develop. Some common signs of stress include headaches, aches and pains, constipation, depression, diarrhea, forgetfulness, and insomnia.

How does stress affect

long-term health?

When chronic, stress can suppress the immune system, the endocrine system, the digestive system, and the reproductive system. A key factor in the negative effects of chronic stress is that it is closely correlated with chronic sleep loss and poor sleep quality. The combination of stress and poor sleep has significant negative effects on the body. Additionally, individuals with chronic stress are more likely to smoke, or abuse alcohol or drugs to attempt to momentarily alleviate stress. It is no wonder that eight of the leading causes of death in the United States are closely linked to stress. These include: Heart Disease, Cancer, accidents (including unintentional drug overdoses), Chronic Lung Disease, Stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, Diabetes, and Suicide.

What can I do to block the negative effects of stress in my life?

While we cannot completely remove stress from our lives, we can find ways to cope that help us manage stress and keep overall stress levels lower. Some ways to do that are:

Being kind to yourself. We are all trying to do our best, focusing on the positive, being flexible and willing to compromise, expressing feelings instead of bottling them up, and spending quality time with family and friends are effective ways of coping with stress.

Getting regular exercise has many benefits. Among them are improved sleep, digestion, immune system function, and improved mental health. Replacing cigarettes or a few drinks with a walk by the water or a nice hike in Rodman’s Hollow or Clay Head is a simple way to boost long term health, especially when we’re feeling stressed.

In 2011, 39 percent of Americans reported overeating or eating unhealthy food because of stress. Maintaining a balanced diet is an important way to keep your body feeling healthy and ready to confront challenges. Additionally, herbal teas such a Chamomile have been shown to help decrease stress levels and even improve sleep.

Mindfulness Meditation. Otherwise known as the practice of nonjudgmental self-awareness, a regular practice of mindfulness meditation has been shown to be an effective way to improve mood and anxiety. Read more here for tips on how to get started (

When should I seek help from a medical or mental health professional?

It is never a wrong time to talk to your medical or mental health professional about stress. If you are feeling overwhelmed or feel that stress is impacting your ability to tend to your responsibilities do not hesitate in reaching out to your doctor and letting them know openly and honestly what is going on. Block Island has several resources either through the Block Island Medical Center or through any of the health and wellness activities going on around town, to help people make connections with one another, enjoy nature and take care of their mental health.

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Medical content edited by Mark Clark MD, Medical Director, BIHS.