Although everyone has a different threshold for stress, we all experience it to some extent, whether it’s the chronic stress of commuting to work every day, or the stress that comes from our personal relationships or our careers. There’s also the acute stress that comes from a job change, the illness of a friend or family member, or a cross-country move.
How Stress Impacts Your Health and Happiness
Some people may recover from stress quickly, while others may find themselves buried by the weight of it. Wherever you find yourself on the spectrum, stress can take a toll on your body and mind.1
Because stress can have far-reaching impacts on your health and well-being, it’s important to understand what those impacts are—and how you can help minimize them.
When Stress Is Helpful—and When It Isn’t
You might not realize it, but not all stress is bad. It can motivate you to prepare for an interview or perform well during a big presentation. It can even be a lifesaver, prompting the ancient, time-worn fight-or-flight response if you are confronted with danger.2 This response triggers a release of cortisol and epinephrine3, causing your heart rate and breathing to increase as your muscles tense and more oxygen flows to your brain—the same response cavepeople experienced eons ago when needing to flee from, or fight off, a predator.
The problem is, if you are constantly bombarded with stress, this same lifesaving response may begin to cause physical symptoms, such as headaches, muscle aches and digestive issues; or psychological ones, including anger and sadness. Even worse, chronic stress could eventually harm your health, causing problems with your heart, immunity, sleep and so much more.4
Let’s take a look at the impacts of stress on the body and mind.
Cardiovascular and Cerebrovascular Problems
While researchers have long suspected a link between long-term stress causing inflammation and consequent heart problems, that link has yet to be conclusively proven.5 However, one study did find that high perceived stress was associated with an increased risk of so-called incident coronary heart disease, such as an episode of chest pain or a hospital admission.6
Experiencing stressful situations may also lead to a short-term spike in blood pressure.7 When you are stressed, your blood vessels constrict and your heart rate increases, which can cause your blood pressure to rise, temporarily. While these changes disappear when the stressor has passed, if you experience these temporary spikes in blood pressure often enough, your heart, blood vessels and kidneys can suffer damage similar to that caused by long-term high blood pressure.8 People who suffer from chronic stress also appear to have a higher risk of stroke than their calmer peers.9
Immune System Problems
The impacts of chronic stress extend to the immune system, making you prone to more frequent and severe viral infections, such as the common cold and flu.10 Because of the steady stream of stress hormones being secreted by your body, your immune system can become suppressed11—which may have you taking sick days more frequently.In addition to reducing stress, incorporating foods that boost your immune system into your diet may help with fighting off sickness.
Chronic stress may also cause hyperarousal, leading to insomnia.12 Lack of sleep in turn can affect your mental functioning in the areas of attention and working memory.13
It turns out that stress may also make it more difficult for you to lose weight.14 While a stressful event may reduce your appetite in the short term due to the release of an appetite-suppressing hormone, if stress persists, cortisol kicks in, increasing appetite and perhaps even the motivation to eat.15 Cortisol, the hormone that your body produces when experiencing stress, may also be behind the all-too-familiar cravings for sugar and fat.
As if cravings weren’t bad enough, stress may also encourage your body to store more fat. Research has shown that even among slender women, high levels of stress and cortisol are linked to abdominal fat, which may increase your risk of heart disease and diabetes.16
Other Health Issues
Stress may impact many other areas of health and wellness as well. Digestive problems can be a common occurrence in response to acute and chronic stress.17 Researchers have also found that stress may increase the risk of irritable bowel syndrome, which can cause chronic abdominal pain, constipation and diarrhea.18
And have you noticed that you tend to get more breakouts when you’re stressed out? It’s not your imagination—research has found that psychological stress can exacerbate acne.19 Stress has also been found to trigger or aggravate psoriasis.20
Ways to Manage Stress
You may be surprised—even startled—to learn of the many health impacts of stress. But there are ways to manage it.
1. Recognize the Signs
Start by recognizing the signs that you are under stress. Everyone responds to stress in different ways—you may find that you get more headaches, while your friend may suffer from insomnia and stomach pain. Learn how you manifest stress and pay attention to the warning signs that your stress level is creeping up.
2. Get Your Heart Pumping Regularly
When you notice that your stress is increasing—or you find that you’re already under stress—start incorporating regular exercise into your day, if you haven’t already. Not only is exercise a great way to achieve your weight loss and fitness goals, but regular physical activity may also help improve your sleep, boost your mood and reduce your stress levels.21
Perhaps running or walking will help you manage your stress, or some stretching exercises. You also might try yoga or tai chi; many people find their slow, precise movements help them feel calmer and less tense. Or try some mindfulness exercises, such as deep breathing and meditation.
If one activity doesn’t help reduce your stress, try another until you find what works best for you.
Not only does it feel good to enjoy a good laugh, laughter really does help lift your mood and moderate stress. 22 So watch a funny movie, read a great book, be goofy with your kids—it’ll help both in the short and long term.
4. Get Outside, and With Other People
There’s some truth to nature soothing the soul: Researchers at the University of Michigan23 found that group nature walks are linked with significantly lower depression, less perceived stress, and enhanced mental health and well-being among people experiencing stressful life events.
Although it can be tempting to withdraw from others during periods of stress, it likely won’t help you cope. Instead, rely on family and friends for emotional support and encouragement when you’re facing stressful times. You’ll find that phone calls and in-person activities with people you care about can be very therapeutic.
Sometimes stress may come from taking on too much responsibility. No one wants to disappoint others, but saying yes to everything can be emotionally and physically exhausting. Think about what you can say no to in your life. It might be unsettling when you first think about it, but it’s empowering to set boundaries for yourself.
If you find that you still have too many priorities competing for your attention, getting organized may help to reduce your stress levels. Try making a to-do list you’d like to accomplish during the day to help yourself stay on track. And don’t worry if you don’t complete everything—just focus on what you did and tackle the rest the next day.
7. Consider Seeing a Professional
Still feeling stressed after implementing these tips? Don’t hesitate to reach out to someone who specializes in stress management; he or she can offer individualized guidance and support and perhaps allow you to even thrive, during times of stress.
While stress can have far-reaching, dramatic effects on your health and well-being, we hope that these tips can bring some calmness and serenity to your life.
If you are trying to lose weight, don’t let meal planning and calorie counting stress you out. Contact us today for a free appointment to get started and get one-on-one support toward reaching your health goals.
Elisa is a content marketing manager for Jenny Craig with over ten years of experience working in the health and fitness industry. She loves sharing her passion for living a balanced and healthy lifestyle. A San Diego native and an endurance sports enthusiast, you can usually find her swimming, biking along the coast highway or running by the beach in her free time. Elisa holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from California State University Chico.
Favorite healthy snack: mozzarella string cheese with a Pink Lady apple.
This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles and is written by experienced health and lifestyle contributors and reviewed by certified professionals.
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