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Stress and your health

 Women walking dog.

Stress can cause physical changes that may set us up for illness and contribute to serious health problems, including heart disease.

Whether we worry about money, work, health problems or Wall Street meltdowns, stress can be a serious problem in our lives—and not just because it batters emotions. Research shows that stress can affect our bodies and contribute to health problems, including headaches, depression and heart disease.

The kind of stress that's particularly bad for us is long-term stress, as well as uncontrollable stress, according to the American Psychological Association.

Stress and your health

The symptoms of stress are actually your body's way of responding to a threat. Hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, are released into the blood, causing heart rate, blood pressure and blood sugar to rise.

Known as the fight-or-flight response, these and other stress-induced changes may help prepare our bodies to address a challenge.

While a reasonable amount of stress can keep us on our toes and help with daily challenges, too much stress may harm our health. Our bodies are ready to fight or run too often.

Too much stress can make sleeping difficult and may contribute to headaches and neck, back and muscle aches. Stress can also make diseases such as asthma worse, slow down wound healing and contribute to depression. And, if you cope with stress by eating more, you could end up gaining unwanted weight.

In addition, research suggests a link between stress and the following health concerns:

Gastrointestinal problems, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). While researchers don't yet know what causes IBS, stress can trigger symptoms, including diarrhea and constipation. Even in people who don't have IBS, problems such as diarrhea and constipation can occur in times of stress.

Lowered immunity. Chronic stress may wear on the immune system, opening the door to the common cold or other viral or bacterial infections.

Heart disease. Temporary, high levels of stress can trigger heart attacks in people with underlying heart problems, according to the American Medical Association.

Research is also looking at links between chronic stress and heart disease, including the possibility that stress hormones directly damage the vascular system or the heart.

Stress may also influence heart disease risk factors or trigger unhealthy behaviors, the American Heart Association reports. For example, people under stress may eat unhealthy foods, drink excessive alcohol, overeat, exercise less or smoke.

Stress is also implicated in the accumulation of abdominal fat, a cardiovascular disease risk factor.

Diabetes. Stress hormones can increase glucose levels, and some research suggests that long-term stress may contribute to the development of diabetes in some people.

Also, people who have diabetes may find it harder to control their blood sugar when they're stressed, according to the American Diabetes Association.

Cancer. Studies have reached conflicting conclusions, though some evidence suggests that stress may weaken the body's defense against certain cancers or cause unhealthy behaviors that increase cancer risk, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Manage stress

Stress is unavoidable, but that doesn't mean we can't manage it. The first step is to recognize problem stress, which affects everyone differently. For some people, warning signs are headaches or an upset stomach. Other signs may be being irritable, sleepy or fatigued.

Techniques for coping include changing how you handle stressful situations, exercising and committing even 15 minutes a day to quietly relax.

For help with managing stress, visit the Stress and Anxiety health topic center.

Reviewed 8/14/2023

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