The mind and the body. We often think of them as separate and distinct parts of ourselves. But as we know, and as medical science continues to prove, our mental health and physical health are closely intertwined.
Stress affects our physical health, and physical and health-related stressors affect our mental health. Just how does stress affect your physical health, and what can you do about it?
Stress is Everywhere
We have short-term stress, like getting cut-off in traffic, and long-term stress, such as a chronic, life-threatening illness, or financial or marital problems. Sometimes stress is expressed as anger or depression. We have all felt some of the many physical signs of stress, such as trouble sleeping, headaches, fatigue, sexual difficulties, or diarrhea. Some of us may increase health-harming behaviors during stress—such as smoking more, eating too much or too little, or abusing alcohol or drugs.
Scientists study how stress is related to physical problems. They know that stress tends to activate glands in our body that produce many hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones have been with us since the beginning of humankind, helping us fight off an attacker or run to safety. But these hormones can harm us if they are present at too high a level for too long a time. Adrenaline-type hormones raise our heart rate and blood pressure. Cortisol can impair our immune system, making us more vulnerable to infections such as viruses.
Stress has been associated with many diseases and physical problems. Sudden cardiac death is more common when people are under emotional stress. Acute anger, as well as chronic depression, hostility, and social isolation, are associated with sudden death. Loss of a job and bereavement also have been linked to heart attacks and sudden death. Psychological stress also may contribute to early development of atherosclerosis or “hardening of the arteries,” increasing the risk for stroke and heart attack. A Finnish study even showed higher cardiovascular death rates in employees with high levels of work stress.
Coping With Stress
Although stress is all around you, how you react to stress can make all the difference in the world. Learning how to deal with anger quickly and positively, staying connected to other people, and getting help when you are feeling depressed can all decrease the effect of stress on your health. Healthy behaviors, such as exercising and eating a healthy diet, are great stress reducers. Avoiding tobacco, illicit drugs, and excessive alcohol are also important choices that people should make.
Working on ways to take control of stressors—perhaps by sometimes saying “no” when asked to do too much or learning how to manage a chronic illness—can help. Even learning and performing simple relaxation techniques at home or at your desk at work can be useful. Staying connected with friends and/or family also can help to reduce stress. Sometimes professional counseling can help a person who is having trouble dealing with stress in his or her life. If you need help, get it. Your family doctor or spiritual adviser may be a good place to start.
The mind and the body—linked for better or for worse. Think about what is causing stress in your life and sort out what you can do to manage stress in a positive way to work toward a peaceful mind and a healthy body.