It's no secret that stress can really mess with your health. Anyone who has ever gone through finals, suffered through a break-up, survived a move, started a new job, or has basically lived past the age of 21 knows that sometimes life just gets stressful. When these universally stressful situations occur in your life, all you can really do is find healthy ways to cope with them and the stress they bring until they've passed. But it's important to know the difference between an unavoidably stressful time in your life and chronic stress: While short-term stress may make you miserable for a few days or weeks, chronic stress can actually put you at risk for developing certain illnesses and diseases.
To fully understand how stress puts you at risk for illness, however, we need to talk a little bit about the way your body reacts to it. When your body perceives a threat, whether that be a barking dog or a job interview, a tiny region in the back of your brain called the hypothalamus thrusts your body into alarm mode and releases increased levels of adrenaline and cortisol (the primary stress hormone, which increases blood sugar). Fortunately, the body's stress-response system is usually self-limiting; meaning, after your stressor has passed, your hormone levels will return to normal and so will the rest of your body. But when your stressors are constant, your "fight or flight" reaction never turns off, keeping you overexposed to the hormones stress releases while simultaneously disrupting your body's regular processes.
If you're dealing with chronic stress, I know talking about how bad it is for your body will only stress you out more. But it's important to be aware of how chronic stress could be putting you at risk for these serious health problems so that you can find a way to mange the stress in your life and get better.
Although depression has many possible causes, such as genetics, brain chemistry, and devastating life situations, it can also be caused by chronic stress. More specifically, you can end up developing depression if you're not coping with your stress in a healthy way. Coping with chronic stress is really hard, but dealing with depression is just as hard, if not worse.
So don't let stress keep you from taking care of your body, and try to find coping techniques to keep your stress in check. Yoga, meditation, and sleep should help, but if self-help techniques fail you, consider making an appointment with a mental health professional before things get worse.
As I said above, when your body is stressed, it releases cortisol into your bloodstream, and cortisol increases your blood sugar. If you're chronically stressed out, your body's going to be releasing this hormone consistently, which means your chronic stress will keep your blood sugar too high for too long, putting you at risk for developing diabetes. It takes more than a low-sugar diet to prevent diabetes, so take your chronic stress seriously and protect yourself.
3. Heart Disease
Chronic stress keeps your body in "fight or flight" mode, and maintaining that reactionary response to chronic stress means your body is going to be getting way more adrenaline pumped through it than it should. While adrenaline is good for boosting your energy, it also keeps your heart rate and blood pressure at an unhealthy level which, over time, can do real damage to your heart health.
Additionally, chronic stress often leads to unhealthy coping techniques, such as drinking excessively, failing to exercise, and smoking cigarettes. As you probably already know, these habits can also cause heart disease.
4. Breast Cancer
The National Cancer Institute has stated that we don't have the scientific evidence to show a direct cause-and-effect relationship between stress and cancer. However, stress does change the way your immune system works, and it can affect your body's ability to fight and kill cancer cells. Additionally, Psych Central reports that there are studies which have shown that women who've suffered traumatic experiences earlier in life are more likely to develop breast cancer later on in life. Managing your chronic stress now can only help your chances of avoiding breast cancer in the future.
If you're dealing with chronic stress, you already know that it can mess with your short-term memory. But unfortunately, chronic stress may actually cause Alzheimer's disease. Consistently high levels of proteins called Beta-amyloids, which have been linked to Alzheimer's disease and are known to cause brain dysfunction, have been found in studies of chronically stressed mice. These proteins often lead to the malfunction of brain synapses, and unfortunately, this ultimately causes memory problems and other Alzheimer's symptoms.
The Bottom Line
If you're trying to cope with chronic stress and you don't feel like you're succeeding, don't hesitate to do whatever you can to healthily manage your stress levels. If breathing techniques, meditation, healthy diet, and regular exercise don't do enough to help you cope, know that it's OK to cut back on your workload and/or seek professional help. Don't put yourself at risk for these serious health problems; take your chronic stress seriously before it destroys your well-being.