Between work demands, deadlines, personal goals, and family obligations, it’s easy to go the whole day without a break. This is especially true of motivated people who want to achieve great things or people who just want to find that elusive work/life balance. While pushing ourselves to constantly achieve bigger and better things can be rewarding and fulfilling, it can also be stressful. When you’re under stress, your body believes it’s being threatened. You have elevated levels of adrenaline and cortisol. That’s great when you have to run from a bear, but not so great when you have to run a meeting. Chronically high levels of stress hormones are not what nature intended. We may not always be aware of how much stress our bodies and minds are under, but that stress can eventually take a toll on our health in the following ways.
Poor mood and cognition
When you feel constantly under fire and your levels of cortisol and adrenaline are chronically high, you tend to become irritable and anxious. You are more likely to interpret innocuous signals as threats. You may become fatigued or depressed. You may also have more trouble thinking clearly. When you feel stressed, your brain automatically narrows down the number of solutions to a problem. If you’re being attacked, you don’t want to have to sort through 100 different ways to respond. Typically, you either fight or run. Similarly, when you feel stressed in everyday situations, you are less able to consider different perspectives or creative solutions. You’re more likely to respond to challenges reflexively, which may be counterproductive, leading to more stress.
Stress can damage your sleep in several ways. First, if you’re overcommitted and trying to fit too much into your day, you might not leave enough time for sleep. Most of us need at least seven and a half or eight hours of sleep every night to function optimally. Only a few days of too little sleep can impair focus and memory, undermine willpower, and increase negative thoughts and anxiety. Second, if you’re chronically stressed, you might not sleep well even if you do set aside enough time to sleep. You may be unable to fall asleep, or you might wake up at 3 a.m. sweating and not be able to go back to sleep. Whether you don’t give yourself time to sleep or you sleep badly, you will soon feel the effects in your health and productivity.
One of the earliest signs of stress and anxiety is digestive problems. You are more likely to experience acid reflux, stomach cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, or constipation. Stress also causes your liver to produce extra glucose to use as fuel. If the stress persists long enough, this extra glucose may raise your insulin resistance, leading to an increased risk for diabetes.
Increased cardiovascular risk
Stress increases the strain on your cardiovascular system. When you feel threatened, your heart rate increases, pumping oxygen and fuel to your brain and muscles. And the cortisol and adrenaline constrict your blood vessels, increasing your blood pressure. Again, that’s fine for short periods, but when your heart rate and blood pressure are constantly high, your health is at risk. Over time, your arteries harden and you are at greater risk for a heart attack or stroke.
Too much stress can harm your relationships in a number of ways. First, if you’re anxious and irritable all the time, you’re more likely to lose your temper and get into arguments. When you’re stressed, you’re more inclined to interpret someone’s actions as threatening, which leads to more conflict. Unfortunately, this only makes stress worse. Not only does it create more problems but it erodes your social support. Spending time with friends and loved ones is one of the most effective ways to relax and reduce stress over the long term. Just knowing there are people you can count on for help makes you less anxious and more able to face challenges with confidence.
Compromised immune system
Your immune system has a curious relationship to stress. On the one hand, when you perceive a threat, your immune system is put on standby so it’s ready to fight infection if you’re injured. However, if you are constantly under stress, your immune system can’t do its job. Fighting infections is an energy intensive process. That’s one reason it’s so hard to get out of bed when you have the flu. If you’re constantly stressed but you never rest, your body doesn’t have time to heal and fight infections. Eventually, your body will make you take a break when you come down with a bad cold or flu. You are even more vulnerable if stress is cutting into your sleep.
For men, stress can increase testosterone in the short run, but in the long run, testosterone gradually drops. This can lead to erectile dysfunction and decreased fertility. Chronically stressed people may lose interest in sex. Women who are under a lot of stress might experience irregular or painful menstrual cycles.
Acute stress reduces your appetite, but chronic stress actually increases it. Your body assumes you’ve used up all your fuel and wants more. It especially prefers easily digested foods like sugar and carbs. Stress also raises your insulin levels to make more fuel available to your body, but this lowers your blood sugar, making you crave sweets. Constant cravings and snacking eventually add pounds, which further increases your risk of health problems.
If you feel stressed and need a break to reset and recharge, The Dawn Medical Rehab and Wellness center can help. We are one of Thailand’s most respected addiction treatment and wellness centers. We use cutting-edge treatment modalities to provide personalized care to treat addiction, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, personality disorders, PTSD, and executive burnout. See our contact page to reach us by phone or email.