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Is Stress That Harmful?

Maybe it’s money trouble or the burden of caring for a sick relative. Maybe it’s your job. Maybe it’s the traffic. Whatever the cause, everyone seems stressed out these days, and stress can cause both short- and long-term changes to your body and mind. The more we understand how stress affects us, the more we learn about how to cope better.

When we sense danger, our bodies quickly raise our heart rate and focus our attention. Stress is crucial to survival. But over the long term, too much can contribute to health problems, including heart disease, digestive disorders, and headaches. Chronic stress eventually takes both a mental and physical toll. For example, research has shown that wounds in people under chronic stress heal more slowly.

Chronic stress can have a similar effect on the brain. Brain cells bombarded by stress signals have little recovery time and eventually start to shrink. The network that coordinates our thoughts, emotions, and reactions may not function properly. That may explain why studies have linked higher levels of stress hormones with lower memory, focus, and problem-solving skills.

Two things that affect how much stress people feel are self-esteem and a sense of control. Workers who feel more in control at their jobs tend to feel less stress. People with low self-esteem produce more cortisol, a stress hormone, when they’re asked to do something that’s not easy for them, like speak in front of other people. They also don’t become accustomed to the stress even after doing something several times, and continue to produce high levels of cortisol.

Here are some things you can do to help you cope with the stresses of daily life:

  • Get enough sleep.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Eat a healthy diet.
  • Identify your positive characteristics.
  • Acknowledge your accomplishments.
  • Prepare for a busy morning the night before.
  • Accept the things you cannot change. (That red light will stay red whether you’re stressed or relaxed.)
  • Build a social support network of people you can have fun with and turn to in difficult times.
  • Create peaceful times in your day.
  • Try different relaxation methods until you find one that works for you.
  • Don’t smoke.
  • Don’t drink too much alcohol or abuse any other substances.

If you still find yourself too stressed out, talk to your healthcare professional. There are many therapies they may recommend to help you deal with stress and its consequences.

Adapted from NIH: News in Health
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