In June 2015, Vivian Sloan, 39, had a major life change. For more than a month, she was exhausted, cried extensively, and barely ate.
“Even after the worst of it passed, life was still one problem after another,” Sloan said. “More symptoms emerged over the next three years. I had chronic stress due to all the ongoing life changes and difficulties. After I got through all that and my life settled down, my physical health became worse. Anxiety and depression went up. Dealing with anything, even small tasks, felt like confronting a huge crisis. The fatigue was horrible and intense, lasting for days, and my stomach pain worsened.”
Sloan saw her doctor and was screened for a number of conditions, including Hashimoto's, hypothyroidism, celiac disease, Crohn's disease, vitamin deficiencies, and early menopause. Everything came up negative, but tests showed she had a major iron deficiency, which explained the anemia. Nothing explained her stomach pain, but they suspected it was from an ulcer.
Like many people, Sloan’s physical issues were caused by prolonged and chronic stress. Not only does stress affect a person’s mental well being, but it can also create serious physical problems as well.
Studies have found many health problems related to stress, which can also worsen or increase the risk of conditions such as obesity, heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, depression, gastrointestinal problems, and asthma.
But, before you get too stressed out about being stressed out, the good news is that you can manage your stress with the help of your doctor and stress management techniques.
Why Stress Affects the Body
Stress releases hormones in the body. If left unchecked, those stress hormones can affect every part of your physical well-being. The American Institute of Stress explains that stress occurs when your central nervous system (CNS) triggers your “fight or flight” response. The brain’s hypothalamus gets the adrenal glands to release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol.
Adrenaline and cortisol are naturally-occurring hormones designed to help the mind and body react to emergencies. The heart rate speeds up, allowing blood to rush to important muscles such as your heart, legs, and other organs.
Prolonged stress means your body is getting that extreme response on a regular basis, instead of during times of emergency. Why is this dangerous? Those same hormones affect the cardiovascular system and the respiratory systems by causing the heart to pump faster, thus raising blood pressure. Your breathing also becomes faster, which can make conditions such as asthma worse.
These stress responses are extreme, and chronic stress causes the heart to work too hard for too long. When your blood pressure rises, so does your risk for having a stroke or heart attack. It’s not just your heart and lungs that are affected either. Stress affects everything from digestion, brain function, sexual and reproductive functions, and your immune system.
“Go to your doctor. Be completely honest about all your symptoms, even the ridiculous ones, and have tests done,” Sloan said. “Work with your doctor through differential diagnosis and treatment.”
The experts at the Mayo Clinic shared ways you can help reduce your stress on a daily basis.
By taking steps to manage your stress, you can reduce the health risks and even gain some benefits.
Tips to reduce or manage the stress in your life include:
- Eat a healthy diet and exercise A healthy, well-balanced diet and exercise can keep your body fit and able to fight disease. Exercise is also an excellent way to lift your mood.
- Talk about your stressful situations with someone you trust. Sometimes just talking about your problems and concerns can help you put them into perspective. It can also give you insight into ways to deal with them.
- Stay organized to help manage your time more efficiently.
- Remember, no one can do it all alone. Ask for help.
- Use relaxation methods to calm your mind and body. Yoga, tai chi, and meditation are excellent ways to incorporate calming activities into your day.
- Get professional help if you need it.
Those under chronic anxiety should avoid tobacco use, excess caffeine and alcohol, and the use of illegal substances.
Other methods of relief can be found from aromatherapy, nutritional supplements, or even prescription antidepressants and beta-blockers for specific complaints.
Know Your Risk
If you are suffering from symptoms of stress, but are still unsure if stress is the cause of physical ailments, consult your doctor. Your physician may want to do tests to pinpoint potential causes of discomfort or could help you with coping tools to lessen your stress.
However, if you have chest pain, shortness of breath, or pain radiating down into your shoulder or arm, these may not be stress symptoms, but warning signs of a heart attack.
After years of suffering, Sloan realized that stress was the default setting for her brain and body.
“It was like I had forgotten how to live in any state other than survival mode. Any difficulty, no matter how minor, felt like a huge ordeal because I had gotten used to navigating big problems and I didn't have the mental or physical strength anymore,” she said.
“I knew that stress could affect me mentally. I had been warned that stress would affect me physically too, but I brushed that off and assumed that the worst physical effect I'd have was feeling tired.”
After seeing her doctor, Sloan was prescribed a proton pump inhibitor to alleviate her digestive pain and disorders. Still, she says recovering from chronic stress is a constant battle.
“I don't think I've completely recovered, but I'm definitely doing better. I think that being a stressed-out ball of sharp anxiety for nearly four years damaged my friendships and acquaintanceships in my social circles, so I feel lonely and left out and I have to slowly rebuild everything,” Sloan said. “I have learned a very hard lesson about how much stress can damage you physically.”
Stress is an unavoidable consequence of life. Some stress, like the death of a loved one or the loss of a job, you can’t help. Other stressors, however, are under your control. The trick is in learning how to distinguish between the two.
Of course, the best way to treat stress is to prevent it. Getting enough sleep, a proper diet, avoiding excess caffeine and other stimulants, and taking time out to relax may be helpful in the fight against constant stress.
If your doctor prescribes medication to treat the physical effects of stress, your Community Cares Rx Prescription Discount Card can get you up to 70% off generics and 20% of brand name medications. Download your free card today and start saving on medications for your entire family.