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How Stress Can Affect the Body 

Tom Allen, Executive Medical Director, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois 

Stress has a way of rearing its ugly head and sometimes it can be overwhelming. As much as we wish it weren't so, stress is part of our daily lives.

April is Stress Awareness Month and a good time to discuss the effects of stress on our bodies. 

Your body is designed to deal with stress. Our natural fight-or-flight response kicks in when we feel threatened. The brain triggers the release of hormones and a sense of alarm. The hormones are meant to help us fight the threat or run away from it.

But what happens if your body feels stressed a lot? How does your body fare if you are in constant state of alarm?

When your body is in a prolonged stressed state, it doesn’t have time to recover. Heart attacks, cancer, diabetes and other life-threatening illnesses are linked to stress. That’s why it’s important to reduce it. Stress is triggered by the way you deal with what’s happening, not from what’s happening. A stress trigger for one person may not be a trigger for another person. Understanding what makes you feel stressed is an important step that may help you deal with triggers and better cope with stress when it strikes. 

Stress can affect your entire body. It can worsen many health problems — from depression and migraines to asthma and sleeplessness. Stress also raises your heart rate and blood pressure, making your heart work harder. Over time, these effects may damage your blood vessels and contribute to heart disease.

It's important to know the difference between stressors and things that can excite you to action. Things that make you worried, anxious or depressed can be harmful to your wellbeing. On the other hand, goal-setting and striving to meet deadlines can be good for you. 

Knowing common signs of stress can help you handle them. 

Head and Mood: Stress alters memory and other brain functions like mood and anxiety. That’s why you may get a headache or feel forgetful and disorganized.

Heart: Stress may lead to chest pain or a fast heartbeat. It can cause high blood pressure and cholesterol levels. It may also increase your risk for heart disease.

Stomach and Digestion: Stress touches the brain-gut link. It may set off pain, bloating and other gut issues. Stress can change digestion and affect what nutrients your body absorbs when you eat. It can also make you eat too much or too little.

Back: Anxiety and stress can lead to muscle tension and cause back, shoulder and neck pain. You may hunch your shoulders, causing pain through your upper and middle back. Many people exercise less when stressed, too. Sitting for hours can strain the spine and lower back muscles.

Whole Body: Physical warnings of stress include aches and pains, insomnia, frequent colds, headaches, fatigue and infections. You may experience nervousness and shaking, dry mouth, clenched jaw and teeth grinding.

Since stress can cause many health issues, one of the best things you can do is learn to manage it. A few simple steps can help you get started. Try a deep-breathing break or go for a walk. Check in with your family and friends when you need support and build in some time to relax each day. 

Relaxation can help slow your breathing, lower blood pressure, and cut muscle tension and stress, according to the National Library of Medicine. You can try progressive relaxation, tightening and relaxing different muscle groups sometimes combined with breathing exercises. Learning to focus on positive images in your mind is one more step you can take. Deep breathing exercises can also be helpful. 

Look back on how you've coped with past problems. Could you use those skills now? Make a note of things that helped or hurt when you handled past hardships.

Reach out if you are struggling with your mental health. Talk to your doctor or other health care providers. They may help or recommend a mental health professional.

For information, visit our website.

The above material is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for the independent medical judgment of a physician. Physicians and other health care providers are encouraged to use their own best medical judgment based upon all available information and the condition of the patient in determining the best course of treatment.  

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois, a Division of Health Care Service Corporation, a Mutual Legal Reserve Company, an Independent Licensee of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association