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How Stress Can Harm You or Liberate You

The purpose of this article is to create awareness around the critical risks and important messages of stress, as well as to share certain meaningful stress-relief strategies.

Stress is a normal response to situational pressures or demands, especially if they are perceived as threatening or dangerous. Although you may understand the difference between a harmless stressor and something more serious, your body and brain don’t always make the connection. Whether you’re feeling under pressure, maybe you face big changes in your life, have too many responsibilities, or are worried about something, the symptoms and effects are the same. Some common stressful events in life include having an overload of work or school deadlines, lacking job security, fulfillment or direction, being in debt, having relationship problems, divorcing, moving, having a major illness or injury, grieving, etc. Stress is a normal human reaction that happens to everyone. In fact, the human body is designed to experience stress and react to it. When you experience changes or challenges (stressors), your body produces physical and mental responses. This is technically a good thing; otherwise, how would you know that something is wrong? Are you paying attention?

When you don’t pay attention, stress can lead to deep feelings of loneliness, difficulty sleeping or anxiety and therefore might impact your entire life. Chronic stress can lead to chronic pain, is a threat to your immune system, can create high blood pressure, a slow metabolism, lead to heart disease, strokes and sometimes to suicidal ideation. According to research, “Stress affects all systems of the body including the musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, nervous, and reproductive systems.”

A Brief Overview of Stress

You experience stress when you feel pressure or fear. It occurs when you don't feel under control, in uncomfortable situations or may feel as though you can’t manage.

Medical professionals may classify some types of stress as "acute" or "chronic":

Acute Stress:

It is defined as stress that occurs suddenly. It can happen within minutes or hours, such as a traffic jam, an argument with your spouse, after receiving criticism from your boss or someone else, or even a few weeks following an event such as a natural catastrophe or experiencing the loss of a loved one. Acute stress can also be brought on by a situation where a change is needed. You feel a sudden shift in your physical and emotional state. Problems can arise when someone adapts to stress rather than addresses the cause and makes a decision to take action steps in order to understand and or solving the problem.

Chronic Stress:

A stress that lasts for a long period of time or returns when a person is under a lot of pressure. It occurs when everyday life is harder than it should be, such as experiencing financial struggles or poverty, a dysfunctional marriage or family, or a deeply dissatisfying job. Stress can have subtle, slow-burning effects on the mind and body. When not addressed and relieved, and or when the person doesn’t reach out for help, they may face various severe life and health issues and are at an increased risk of critical physical ailments and mental illnesses. The adrenal glands control hormones that initiate the flight or fight response. If you are always in fight mode, your body will get used to this and may produce inflammation or other symptoms which are a defense mechanism that always ‘stays on’.

Threats to the Heart

During a stressful event, blood pressure may rise, putting strain on the smallest vessels. It can cause damage to the blood vessels, leading to serious health problems like a heart attack. Studies suggest that the high levels of the hormone cortisol released from long-term stress can increase blood cholesterol, triglycerides, blood sugar and blood pressure. These are common risk factors for heart disease. When you're anxious, your body naturally releases hormones (dopamine, cortisol, and adrenaline) which trigger the body to freeze or fight. The rush supply of hormones leads to a high rate of blood pressure attempting to keep the pool of blood to the other parts of the body, which causes hypertension.

It Affects the Immune System

If a person is constantly stressed, their immune system will deteriorate. When stress becomes chronic, the body experiences an internal shutdown, making many people more prone to illness and weakening their body's immune system. When we're stressed, the immune system's ability to fight off antigens is reduced. That is why we are more susceptible to infections and we may not realize it until it’s too late. The stress hormone cortisol can suppress the effectiveness of the immune system

Increased Risk of Life-threatening Illnesses

If not properly managed, stress can lead to life-threatening conditions such as cancer, liver, lung or heart disease. Not all who are stressed will develop these health problems, although it does increase a person's vulnerability to these illnesses, especially if they are frequently exposed to other risk factors such as tobacco use, high alcohol consumption, physical inactivity, obesity, ect.

Emotional Symptoms and Memory Loss

Acute and chronic stress are revealed to have an emotional impact. It may cause insomnia, or it can be linked to memory concerns and is associalted to an increased chance of developing symptoms of anxiety and depression. Stress has also been connected to accelerated aging and brain atrophy.

Warning Symptoms

The following physical symptoms may indicate that stress is causing harm to your health:

● Recuring signs of fear response like jaw clenching, sweating, muscle tension

● Other physical symptoms such as migraines or back, neck and shoulder pain

● Low energy and a lack of life-force

● Having trouble concentrating

● Increased heart rate or blood pressure

● Having trouble breathing

● Sudden or erratic shifts in appetite or mood

Some long-term adverse effects of stress on health include:

● Addiction

● Emotional ups and downs

● Frequent infections and colds

● Blood sugar fluctuations

● Low libido

● Relationship problems

● Struggles with performance at work or at school

● Issues with sleep or insomnia

● Digestive problems (such as diarrhea, IBS, and other forms of constipation)

● Other conditions linked to hormonal problems, including adrenal fatigue

How to Deal with Stress?

Manage Your Stress

Feeling out of control can cause stress. Although it’s important to note that always being in control can also be very stressful. Finding the balance between taking control and releasing control is an empowering experience. There are also a lot of strategies that can make a significant impact. Some of the following examples may seem basic but they are imperative to consider:

Interacting with others

Companionship is way underestimated and undervalued. Social isolation and loneliness are very stressful. It is of upmost importance to have the support of friends, family, and/or coworkers, neighbors or other community members. Having a community is an important source of social connection and provides a sense of belonging. Participating in a community or simply just having someone to talk to where you are bonded by stories, attitudes, values, and goals is an essential ingredient to enjoying