Stress: How does it impact our physical health?
It’s National Stress Awareness Month, which means it’s a good time to sign up for CNN’s Stress But Less newsletter. Our six-part guide to mindfulness will inspire you to reduce stress while learning how to harness it.
As we mark Stress Awareness Month in April, I know there’s a lot to be stressed about—mass shootings, wars around the world, the long-term effects of the pandemic, and the daily stresses of living and working in the 21st century. . I’m sure you have your list.
Everyone experiences stress at different times in their lives. But when is stress a problem that demands our attention? What symptoms should people watch out for? What are the health impacts of long-term stress? What are healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms? And what techniques can help in the treatment and prevention of stress?
Fresh from dropping my kid off at school (sorry, kid, my fault), I was looking forward to this advice from CNN medical analyst Dr. Leana Wen. Wen is an emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health. She previously served as Baltimore Health Commissioner and as Chair of Baltimore Behavioral Health Systems.
CNN: Let’s start with the basics. What exactly is stress?
Dr. Leana Wen: There is no single definition of stress. The World Health Organization definition refers to a state of anxiety or tension caused by a difficult situation. Many people experience stress as mental or emotional strain. Others also have physical manifestations of stress.
Stress is a natural reaction. It is a human response that prompts us to respond to perceived challenges and threats. Some stress can be healthy and can push us to meet obligations. Perceived stress can drive us to study for a test or complete a project by a deadline. Almost everyone experiences that kind of stress to some degree.
CNN: Why can stress be a problem?
Wen: The same human reaction that motivates us to work hard and finish a project can also lead to other emotions, such as not being able to relax and becoming nervous and anxious. Some people develop physical reactions, such as headaches, stomach upsets and trouble sleeping. Long-term stress can lead to anxiety and depression and can worsen symptoms for people with pre-existing behavioral health conditions, including substance use.
CNN: What are the symptoms of stress that people should be on the lookout for?
Wen: In addition to feeling nervous and anxious, people experiencing stress can also feel nervous, insecure and angry. They often express other symptoms, including feeling a lack of motivation; have problems with concentration; and being tired, crushed and burned. Many times, people in stressful situations will report feeling sad or depressed.
It is important to note that depression and anxiety are separate medical diagnoses. Someone with depression and/or anxiety may have symptoms worsen when they are going through periods in their life of increased stress. Long-term stress can also lead to depression and anxiety.
One way to think about the difference between stress versus anxiety and depression is that stress is generally a response to an external issue. The external cause can be good and motivating, like the need to complete a project. It can also be negative emotional stress, such as an argument with a romantic partner, concerns about financial stability, or a challenging situation at work. The stress should go away when the situation is resolved.
Anxiety and depression, on the other hand, are generally persistent. Even after a stressful external event has passed, these internal feelings of fear, unworthiness, and sadness are still there and interfere with your ability to live and enjoy your life.
CNN: What are the health impacts of long-term stress?
Wen: Chronic stress can have long-term consequences. Studies have shown that it can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. It is associated with worse immune response and decreased cognitive function.
Individuals experiencing stress are also more likely to adopt unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking, excessive drinking, substance use, lack of sleep, and physical inactivity. These lifestyle factors can in turn lead to worse health outcomes.
CNN: What techniques can help deal with stress?
Wen: First, awareness is important. Know your body and your response to stress. Sometimes, anticipating that a situation may be stressful and preparing to deal with it can reduce stress and anxiety.
Second, identifying symptoms can help. For example, if you know that your stress response includes feeling an increased heart rate and restlessness, then you can detect the symptoms when they occur and become aware of the stressful situation while it is happening.
Third, know which stress relief techniques work for you. Some people are big fans of mindfulness meditation. Those, and deep breathing exercises, are all good to try.
For me, nothing beats stress relief like exercise. For me, what helps is exercise, especially swimming. Aerobic exercise is associated with stress relief, and mixing it with high-intensity regimens can also help.
Many people have other specific techniques that help them. Some people clean their house, organize their closets or work in their gardens. Others spend time walking in nature, writing in a journal, doing needlework, playing with pets, or riding a bike.
I would advise that you experiment with what works, take stock of existing techniques that work for you, and incorporate some of those practices into your regular routine. Then, in times of stress, they are good tools to turn to that you know will help you.
CNN: What unhealthy coping strategies should people avoid?
Wen: Absolutely. There are things that people turn to in an effort to make themselves feel better in the short term that can actually make things worse. Excessive drinking, drug use, and smoking are not healthy coping strategies. It’s the same with staying up all night, overeating and taking out your frustration on loved ones. These have far-reaching consequences and you need to review them if they have been your coping mechanisms in the past.
CNN: When is it time to ask for help?
Wen: If the stress you’re feeling is constantly interfering with your work, social or personal life, or if you’re experiencing signs and symptoms of depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders, it’s time to seek help.
Consider talking to your primary care doctor about getting a referral to a therapist. Your workplace may have an Employee Assistance Program that you can turn to as well. And the federal mental health crisis hotline, 988, is another resource.
This April, for Stress Awareness Month, I hope we can all take stock of our stress levels as well as our response to stress. We need to understand what helps us to reduce and relieve stress as we aim to improve our physical and emotional well-being.