What was your New Year’s resolution? If it was to join a gym or try to eat more fruits or vegetables, then kudos to you, but you may be neglecting one of the most beneficial things you can do to improve your health: You should be trying to limit (or at least manage) your stress.

An expert from the Texas A&M College of Nursing talks about why your stress can be derailing your health.

What is stress?

Stress is a physical response to a perceived threat, which may or may not be real. The stress response causes the body to release hormones that have physiological effects, such as elevated heart rate, increased energy, increased focus and increased blood flow to your muscles—giving you increased power.

This biological “fight-or-flight” response came in handy whenever our prehistoric ancestors sensed a predator looming and they had to tap into some stored energy to fight back or make a quick getaway.

Your (modern) body under stress

However beneficial these effects may be in the short term, constant responses to stress can use up that same stored energy, and that is where the problems begin. “Chronic stress can cause physiological problems,” said Nicola Contreras, MSN, a registered nurse and clinical assistant professor with the Texas A&M College of Nursing. “Lasting stress can lead to headaches, muscle soreness and other chronic complications.”

When a person is stressed, the body releases a hormone called cortisol, and elevated cortisol can be the start of a variety of issues. It can cause cognitive problems, such as interfering with mood and memory, and it can also increase weight gain, blood pressure and cholesterol.

If you begin feeling ill after a particularly long and stressful few days, that likely isn’t a coincidence. Elevated cortisol can tank your immune system, or it may manifest as symptoms that make you contact your health care provider.

“Sometimes people will go to their provider with gastrointestinal problems, like constipation or diarrhea, that are brought on by stress,” Contreras said. “In other cases, stress could weaken the immune system and make you more susceptible to illnesses, like the cold or flu.”

 Stress, the public health crisis

Data from the American Psychological Association (APA) showed that over 60 percent of Americans have significant stress from either money, work or politics. After a 2010 survey of more than 3,000 American adults, the APA even called it a “public health crisis.”

Most Americans are suffering from moderate to high stress, and 44 percent of people reported that their stress levels increased over the past five years. Also, stress isn’t just an adult problem. Almost one-third of children reported that they had experienced a physical health symptom related to stress.

Remember in the beginning when we talked about self-care being a priority as a New Year’s resolution? Well the same data showed that only 40 percent of Americans rate their health as very good or excellent. While 54 percent agreed that physical activity was very or extremely important, for example, only roughly a quarter of respondents were happy about their own level of exercise.

“People with chronic stress will have irregular eating and sleeping patterns,” Contreras said. “They may eat too much food, or have no appetite at all. They also may not be able to get the appropriate amount of sleep, or may even be sleeping too much.”

Data from the APA agrees with Contreras: Many American adults are indulging in unhealthy behaviors to cope with stress. Almost a third of adults say they skipped a meal because of stress in the past month. Two-fifths reported overeating or eating unhealthy foods because of stress, and more than 40 percent reported that they stayed awake at night due to stress.

Contreras also noted that having high amounts of stress can lead to anxiety or depression or drug and alcohol abuse. “People respond to stress differently, whether that is being more irritable or experiencing other changes in personality, or possibly drinking or taking drugs to try and handle the stress better,” she said.

How to deal with stress

Just as stressors are unique to individuals, there is no tried-and-true way to relieve stress once and for all. However, health experts will point to exercise as a good starting point.

“Exercise counteracts some of the impacts of stress,” Contreras said. “It can be as simple as walking or swimming or dancing, but exercise has been shown to improve health and raise endorphins to fight stress.”

Deep breathing and meditation can also help relieve stress. According to the American Institute of Stress, to effectively combat stress, we need to actively relax—which means to take deep abdominal breaths for 20 to 30 minutes and not just watch television in your sweatpants.

If you believe that stress has interfered with your daily routine, you shouldn’t hesitate to tell your provider. “Talk to your provider about stress and stress management,” Contreras said. “They could tell you about what changes need to be made to help improve your health and limit long-term damage from stress.”

— Dominic Hernandez

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