How Stress Does a Number on Your Mind and Body 

Sometimes we don’t realize how high our stress level actually is until we stop to focus on how we’re feeling, and what our bodies are doing. Unexpected stress is a normal part of life, and our bodies are designed to deal with small bouts of it; times when we might feel more anxious or upset than normal. It’s important to know that feelings trigger very specific physical and mental responses in our bodies. 

Problems can arise when feelings of stress or anxiety become chronic, putting bodies and minds in a long-term state of having to process these emotions – and the physical and mental reactions they can trigger. 

Physical signs of stress. Some of the physical signs of stress are easy to recognize. If you’re on a video meeting for work and find yourself becoming increasingly annoyed that it’s dragging on, you might notice how tense your shoulder muscles have become, or that you’re clenching your jaw or hands. Looking at a to-do list that’s much longer than you are comfortable with could cause you to have an upset stomach. Arguing with a close friend or family member might bring on a migraine.  

If you don’t learn to recognize and manage your stress, it can become a chronic issue that leads to serious health problems, according to the Mayo Clinic. These include high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and obesity. The most common stress reactions to watch for: 

  • Headache 
  • Chest pain 
  • Muscle tension 
  • Trouble sleeping 
  • Fatigue 
  • Upset stomach

Mental effects of stress. When it comes to your brain, stress can have both short-term and long-term impacts, with chronic stress shown to sometimes deteriorate a person’s brain activity over time, according to research. Your brain is built to handle periodic stress, whether you find yourself in a dangerous or high-stress situation, according to Harvard Medical School. In those times, your fight-or-flight instinct takes over, allowing you to focus on what’s immediately important.  

But in people who are chronically stressed, being in this persistent kind of survival mode can rewire a brain – and not for the better. It keeps the more primitive part of a brain that senses and handles danger more active than the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain that helps us perform more complex tasks, studies have shown.  

Learning to manage stress. While you can’t control every situation, there are things you can do to make everyday stress more manageable. By paying attention to your body and your emotions, you can figure out if your stress is situational – like being nervous about a doctor’s appointment or a presentation at work – or if it is a more chronic state that doesn’t seem to ebb. 

Here are some ways to decrease your stress level: 

  • Physical activity. Make it regular and drop it in throughout the day, if you can. This might be a lunchtime walk or a 10-minute break spent on your treadmill or stationary bike. 
  • Relaxation techniques like yoga poses, deep breathing or a five-minute meditation break. 
  • Spend time with friends.  
  • Make time for your favorite things. This can be reading, watching your favorite show or listening to music. 
  • Get enough sleep. 

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Photo credit: Getty

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