Squeezing a stress ball

Everyone experiences stress from time to time. While a little stress is okay and can be beneficial, too much stress can wear you down physically and mentally. In recent years, stress is becoming increasingly widespread. In fact, Americans are among the most stressed-out people in the world, according to an annual Gallup survey. Likewise, in 2018, Americans reported feeling stress, anger and worry at the highest levels in a decade.  


In light of these findings, let’s define stress and anxiety, emphasize the physical toll of stress, and address ways to reduce stress in everyday life.  


Defining stress

The medical definition of stress is a physical, mental, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension. An individual often feels stress when facing a real (or imagined) threat to their well-being, such as financial issues, work challenges, relational problems or other difficult situations. It can initiate the body’s fight-or-flight response to fend off against danger, whether mental or physical.

 Stress vs. anxiety

Because stress and anxiety share similar symptoms, it can be difficult to differentiate the two. However, knowing the difference is critical to your health. Stress occurs as a reaction to an external situation and is generally a short-term experience, while anxiety is a sustained mental health disorder often triggered by stress. 

 Anxiety is defined as a feeling of apprehension and fear that sticks around after the stressful situation has passed. In severe cases, anxiety can escalate into an anxiety disorder, which is the most common mental illness in the United States. Catching the symptoms of stress and anxiety early is imperative to prevent this development. 

 The physical toll of stress

Stress, chronic stress, and anxiety can take a physical toll on your body and health. Physical symptoms of stress and anxiety often include headaches, heartburn, insomnia, rapid breathing, pounding heart, stomachaches, decreased sex drive, erectile dysfunction, missed periods and tense muscles. When stress levels remain high, these symptoms impact your overall health. Here are 11 ways stress can take a toll on different parts of your body

  1. Graying hair and hair loss

  2. Increased risk for mental problems and disorders 

  3. Tension-related headaches and backaches as well as neck and shoulder pain

  4. Shortness of breath, hyperventilation, and aggravated symptoms of lung disease

  5. A rise in heart rate and blood pressure and increased risk of cardiovascular disease

  6. Increased glucose production in the liver, which can contribute to the onset of diabetes

  7. A weakened immune system, which makes you more vulnerable to infections

  8. Increased risk of kidney disease and kidney stones.

  9. Weight gain 

  10. Acid reflux and intensified symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease

  11. Decreased sex drive and erectile dysfunction

 How to manage and reduce stress

According to Everyday Health, Americans lack stress management skills. To minimize the effects of stress on physical and mental health, it’s vital to manage and reduce stress. Here are 7 hacks for dealing with stress:   

  1.  Practice meditation: The goal of meditation is to produce a deep state of relaxation and a tranquil mind. It’s a simple and quick way to reduce stress that you can practice wherever you are. Plus, there are plenty of apps to guide your practice. 

  2. Exercise regularly: Get moving to manage stress. Exercise pumps up your feel-good endorphins and improves your overall mood. Just a few minutes of regular exercise can stimulate anti-anxiety effects. 

  3. Sleep smarter: While stress can cause sleepless nights, getting enough rest can reduce stress. Adults should aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night. A 30-40 minute nap can also alleviate stress. 

  4. Start a gratitude journal: There is a scientific connection between gratitude and well-being. Reflect and write down what you are grateful for. This shifts your focus from what is stressing you out to what’s important. 

  5. Learn to say no and avoid procrastination: While some stressors are out of your control, sometimes reducing the stress in your life comes down to saying “no” and better time management. 

  6. Try music therapy: Music is a stress-reliever. Whether listening to soothing tunes or jamming out on your instrument of choice, music has the power to change your mood. 

  7. Be social: Spend quality time with friends and family to give and get the support you need. Social support can get you through tough times. 

 If you’d like to talk to a doctor about your stress or anxiety-related symptoms, call 205-996-WEST to schedule an appointment for an evaluation with a UAB Medical West provider. We are here to serve the communities of Hoover, Bessemer, McCalla, and Vance, and more!