Long-term stress and your health
This article was updated on September 24, 2021 to reflect recent information and research.
[5 MIN READ]
In this article:
Chronic stress can weaken your immune system and resiliency.
What happens when fight-or-flight stress hormones enter your bloodstream on a long-term basis.
Providence endocrinologist Olga Calof, M.D., provides an expert perspective on the effect of stress on your health.
We've all been under extraordinary stress since the start of the pandemic. Chronic stress can wreak havoc on both your mental and physical health. It wears down your body’s natural defenses, leaving you exhausted and exposed to illness -- including COVID-19.
Dr. Olga Calof, endocrinologist at Providence Medical Institute, San Pedro Primary Care, shares her perspective on the impact of stress on your body, your immunity and your overall resilience -- and ways you can help manage it.
Here to help you feel your best
By: Dr. Olga Calof
As I sit and reflect on the impact of COVID-19, I realize that this pandemic has been the great equalizer. Like many, I heard the governor give the grim news that fateful Friday, March 13, while picking up my daughter from outdoor science school. I truly believed that the stay-at-home orders would last no more than two weeks. Then, we would all be back to our normal, hectic lives, and it would all be a nice vacation.
Now, as our country and global communities struggle to slow the spread of the virus and its many variants, we're shifting our focus to not only battling this deadly pandemic, but managing its long-term effects on its survivors. That includes recognizing and dealing with the impact on our physical, mental and emotional health from living through the seemingly endless ups and downs.
Fight or flight?
Stress, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is:
"1. A state of mental tension and worry caused by problems in your life, work, etc.; 2. Something that causes strong feelings of worry or anxiety."
As an endocrinologist, I happen to be intimately acquainted with the hormones that can cause stress-related symptoms. Stress-related symptoms are body responses that produce changes you can feel physically, such as a racing heart, tremors, and the stomach-turning feeling of dread.
The best-known example of rapid stress hormone release is referred to as the “fight or flight” reaction. This happens when you feel threatened internally or externally. In this scenario, the stress response causes your body to release stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline (also known as epinephrine), into the bloodstream. These hormones were helpful when humans lived in caves; those with the best fight or flight responses were able to fend off predators and survive to pass on their genes.
When released, rapid stress hormones feed every cell in the body, which in turn fuel the brain and muscles to increase alertness, concentration, and strength. They increase heart rate and blood pressure for the rapid response needed to free you from danger. After you’ve dealt with the short-term stress, these hormones leave as quickly as they came, and we return to our normal state. But in some cases, these hormones do not subside and hang around much longer than necessary. Our bodies and minds do not have time to recover.
How stress threatens your physical and mental health
Chronic stress and stress hormones can bring on mental and physical diseases and affect every part of our body. There are many signs and effects of excessive stress on the body, including:
- Body aches
- Stomach pains and digestive problems
- Increased or decreased appetite
- High blood pressure
- High sugar levels
- Insomnia (trouble sleeping at night) or too much sleeping
- Heart trouble and heart attack
- Weakened immune system (especially relevant now)
- Weight gain
- Irregular periods
- Decreased libido (sex drive)
Different types of stress
Not all stress is the same. Acute stress is short-term while chronic stress is long-term. Examples of acute stress would be any stress you suffer from for a short period of time -- like a car cutting you off on the freeway, an argument with your spouse, or a scary noise outside your home.
But if you're a bus driver and you get stuck in numerous traffic jams every day, you're in a bad relationship and you argue with your spouse constantly, you work for a toxic boss or you live in a high-crime neighborhood where break-ins are relatively common, your stress may be chronic.
Your body is well designed to recover quickly from short-term stress. That's how many mental health experts define resilience: How quickly you recover from an acute episode of stress. Your blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate and levels of muscle tension may skyrocket for a short while. If you're young (and/or) healthy and in good shape, these markers of stress quickly return to their normal levels.
Our bodies aren’t as good at handling chronic stress, however. Over time, chronic stress gradually increases your resting heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate and levels of muscle tension so the body has to work even harder when it's at rest to keep you functioning normally.
A new time, a new approach to your health
I have to admit, I have changed the way I talk with my patients. We are all in the same boat, we are all facing the same stressors, the same pandemic. I have seen much more weight gain, critically elevated blood sugars, and blood pressures in many patients. At the same time, I am seeing many new patients who have not been to the doctor in years, who are finally ready to gain control of their health.
When I speak with my patients, I find we have a lot in common. We realize we cannot control the outside forces, but we can control our response to the pandemic and our health. So, we look internally. We aim to make small but tangible changes in our lifestyles. These small changes can make incremental improvements in overall health.
Now, we don’t just talk about sugar or blood pressure. Instead, we’ll talk about family, worries and long-term health goals. Together, we’ll look beyond the pandemic and use this time as a springboard to a healthier lifestyle.
I think it’s important to share how I’ve coped with stress. I tell them I have found time to learn to knit, learn to cook, and make my mother’s favorite recipes. I am reading and even picked up watercolor painting. I tell them I have three kids that may or may not be at school next week depending on quarantines, or what the local school system decides to do.
We also talk about ways to deal with the stress. Yoga and meditation are wonderful, evidence-based tools that can help manage stress and anxiety. Regular practice helps tame our minds so we can look inward to control our body’s responses to stress. Amazingly, we can teach our bodies to tame some of the hormones that are responsible for chronic stress.
We are no longer doctor and patient but have morphed into a team: humans vs. COVID-19.
Take control of stress levels
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to control your stress levels and make healthy choices – even more than yoga and meditation. Regular, moderate exercise improves thought processes and mood. Other strategies include getting a good night’s sleep.
Humans are also social animals and being isolated has become a stressor to many. Seek emotional support from family and friends (via safely distanced video calls). You can also reduce the long-term effects of chronic stress by eating a healthy diet, most commonly recommended are the Mediterranean, DASH, and plant-based diets. Avoid smoking and drinking too much alcohol as it can put additional stress on your organs.
And finally, find something to laugh about every day—watch comedies, tell silly jokes or find silly baby animal videos on social media. Laughter releases the same endorphins as exercise, lowers your cortisol levels and helps improve your immune system.
Mental health resources
Sometimes, you can't manage your stress, anxiety or depression on your own. When you're feeling like you need support from a professional, there are many resources to help you. The best place to start is with your doctor.
Find more resources here:
Help is here: A list of local and national behavioral health resources
Innovative Providence programs address new mental health challenges
Supporting teen mental health during challenging times
Find a doctor
If you are feeling overwhelmed and the effects of long-term stress on your health, talk to your doctor. Use our provider directory to find the right doctor for you. Through Providence Express Care Virtual, you can also access a full range of healthcare services.
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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.