Nobody enjoys the pounding headache, tightened chest or queasy stomach that can accompany stress, but it’s easy to overlook those warning signs, especially if you’re bogged down with family, work, health and financial challenges.
Over time, though, those strains can actually affect your health. Need proof? Yet another study has been released linking stress to an increased risk of having a heart attack. The research found that women with high-stress jobs (where they are subject to many demands but have little control) were 67 percent more likely to have a heart attack than women in less-intense jobs. The analysis was based on data gathered from 22,086 women in the health-care fields during a 10-year period and was published in the July issue of the journal PLoS One.
Stress can put you in a constant “fight or flight” mode, which can have negative effects on multiple organ systems, including the heart. Research has also linked stress to Type 2 diabetes, impaired immunity, worsening depression and gastrointestinal problems. And a recent poll of more than 1,200 adults by the American Psychological Association suggests that the way people cope with stress can be detrimental, too. For example, 44 percent of respondents reported lying awake at night when they were stressed, and 39 percent said they overate or ate junk food.
The body’s response to stress can include increased breathing and heart rates, tense muscles and the release of energy-producing hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. In the case of an immediate threat, those hormones can fuel the “flight or fight” response, but over the long term they can contribute to physical and emotional problems. Indeed, respondents in the APA survey blamed stress for causing their irritability, fatigue, lack of energy, headaches and upset stomachs. Another common complaint is heart palpitations—a fast heart rate, extra or skipped heartbeats, or a sensation that your heart is pounding.
Following are some other ways that stress can affect your health.
Colds. Chronic stress alters the body’s ability to fight inflammation, leaving people more susceptible to colds, according to an April study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Alzheimer’s disease. Life’s stressful events might also be linked to the onset of dementia, according to a study presented in June at a meeting of the European Neurological Society in Prague. The study included 107 men and women with Alzheimer’s disease and 76 healthy adults. Almost three-quarters of the people with Alzheimer’s had experienced major stress — such as losing a spouse — about two years before the onset of the disease, compared with 24 percent of those in the control group.
Poor diet. When stressed, you might not make sensible food choices. A new study of parents of adolescents found that those who reported greater difficulty balancing work and family obligations were more likely to eat fewer fruits and vegetables and choose fast food than their less-stressed peers.
Stroke. Psychological distress, including anxiety and depression, was associated with increasing the risk of dying from a stroke, according to an observational study published in June in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.
There’s plenty of research supporting a variety of stress-reduction methods, including do-it-yourself techniques and professional help. Humming a hymn might help alleviate stress for some people, according to a May study of 65 African Americans published in the Gerontologist, a journal. Other effective tools include:
Meditation. There are several forms of this practice, including mindful meditation, where you focus your attention on breathing to become more aware of the present.
Biofeedback. This method uses electronic devices to measure heart rate and other indicators, and visual feedback to determine how well you’re doing at reducing stress.
Exercise. Endorphins — feel-good chemicals released during exercise — can counteract adrenaline’s negative effects when you’re feeling stressed.
E-mail hiatus. People who didn’t have access to their work e-mail for five days were less stressed than colleagues who kept e-mailing, according to a small study presented in May by researchers from the University of California at Irvine and the U.S. Army.
Hands-on help. There’s evidence that massage can help relieve anxiety and stress. An annual survey conducted by the American Massage Therapy Association found that 30 percent of people who had massages last year said they chose them to relieve stress and relax.
Get assistance. Even mild psychological distress might be associated with long-term disability, according to a July study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. That’s all the more reason to handle your stress before it leads to a larger problem.