When stress turns from helpful to harmful.

Stress is a normal part of life. It’s even helpful sometimes, encouraging us to get important tasks done and driving us to do better and work harder. Despite how motivating stress can be under certain circumstances, it’s usually not a great feeling—and you’ve likely heard  that it’s bad for you. When your stress levels are overwhelmingly high, especially for extended periods of time, it can have very real negative effects on your health. Here’s how your high stress levels might be affecting your health, as well as a few tips on what you can do to decrease it.

Stress can cause insomnia.

When you’re overly stressed, it can be incredibly difficult to get your mind to wind down at night. You might find yourself struggling to fall or stay asleep, no matter how exhausted you are. When you do fall asleep, you might feel restless throughout the night. Insomnia often causes fatigue, affecting your mood and making it hard for you to concentrate on tasks like work or driving. This increases your risk of accidents and decreased performance at work.

Chronic insomnia also has an effect on the health of your body as a whole because your body needs sleep to function. Your body heals, restores its chemical balance, and builds new thought connections during sleep, so many of your body’s functions begin to suffer when you’re not getting enough of it. Lack of sleep weakens your immune system, making it more likely that you’ll get sick, and puts a strain on your cardiovascular system. It also impairs your body’s ability to regulate your blood sugar, inflammation levels, and blood pressure while making it harder for your body to heal blood vessels and your heart. There are even studies that indicate a link between insomnia and an increased risk of heart attack or stroke.

It makes it harder for your body to fight infections and heal from injuries.

Have you ever noticed that you get sick more often when you’re overly stressed? This isn’t just your imagination—stress actively weakens your immune system. Not only does lack of sleep impact your immune system by cutting down on the time your body spends producing antibodies and cytokines during sleep, but stress hormones have a direct affect on your immune system. The stress hormone lowers the number of lymphocytes in your body, making your immune system less effective and reducing your ability to fight off viral and bacterial invaders.

It can trigger headaches or migraines.

When you’re stressed, you tend to tense up your muscles without realizing it. Constant stress often translates to constantly tense muscles, which can result in muscle and joint pain or stiffness. Tight muscles in your shoulders, neck, and head are major triggers for tension headaches and migraines, so you may find yourself experiencing these issues frequently when you’re stressed.

Stress can lead to a painful TMJ disorder or dental emergency.

Another common reaction to stress is to clench or grind your teeth, often unconsciously—you might even do it in your sleep without being aware of it! Unfortunately, this habit is a major trigger for temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder because it puts too much stress on the joints of your jaw. A TMJ disorder is a condition characterized by severe pain in your jaw that can make it difficult to eat, speak, or even swallow. It’s also associated with a range of other symptoms, from muscle tension and headaches to temporary hearing loss from inflammation.

Grinding or clenching your teeth is also potentially harmful to your teeth or dental restorations because it can cause them to chip, crack, or break. This is especially damaging to teeth with veneers and crowns and could result in you needing to have your restoration replaced. As a result, it’s best to schedule an appointment with Dr. Alhadef if you’ve been waking up with jaw pain or headaches. He can determine if you’ve been clenching or grinding your teeth in your sleep. If you have, a custom night guard will relieve your jaw pain and prevent dental injuries.

Stress can impact your cardiovascular system.

When you’re stressed for relatively short periods of time, your body goes into fight or flight mode. It sends out stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, causing your heart to pump faster and harder, and dilating the blood vessels that send blood to your muscles. This increases your blood pressure and sends more blood to those muscles, readying them for action. Normally, this reaction isn’t unhealthy; on the contrary, it’s a vital survival tactic in a crisis. But when you’re under intense, long-term stress, it’s hard on your body. There’s evidence that it can increase your chances of suffering from high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart attack, and stroke.

It can create problems with your gastrointestinal system.

Your brain is constantly communicating with your digestive tract, so chronic stress can impact it in a surprising number of ways. It can cause stomach cramps, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, or nausea. It can also impact the community of healthy bacteria in your gut, triggering digestion issues, and weaken the intestinal barrier that keeps gut bacteria in your gastrointestinal tract. These bacteria don’t usually make you sick directly because your immune system kills them, but if they’re making their way into your bloodstream more regularly they can cause constant, low levels of inflammation throughout your body as part of your immune response.

Learning to manage your stress levels can cut down on these symptoms.

Thankfully, learning to manage your stress better can help reduce or eliminate these symptoms while lowering your risk of the various health conditions that come with chronic stress. A good place to start is simply making sure that you’re not taking on more work than you can handle. It’s okay to say “no” to a few extra work assignments or activities, as this can help you perform the tasks you do commit to better while giving you a little breathing room in your schedule to relax a bit. Finding the time to relax is also a vital part of maintaining your mental health and letting that stress melt away. Even just a few minutes of daily relaxation—whether that’s a calming bath, reading, or going out for dinner with your friends—will do wonders for your stress levels

Additionally, one quick, easy method to relieve stress is to spend just a few minutes every day practicing mindfulness techniques, breathing exercises, or meditation. Exercising causes your body to produce endorphins, so it’s also a good stress management strategy. Yoga blends in aspects of mindfulness and breathing exercises, combining the best of both worlds. Many people find that it’s a calming exercise routine to start the day with.

The health of your body and mind are linked, so too much stress can be destructive in the long term. If you want to continue caring for the people who need you, you have to take care of yourself first—including your mental health. No matter how busy you are, dedicating time to learning about and practicing stress management is a vital part of living a healthy, happy life.

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