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How Stress Affects Your Health

This What Happens When You Ignore Signs of Stress For Too Long

Mental health and wellbeing is very close to our hearts, and while we truly aim to have an always-on approach to covering all aspects of mental health, we have chosen to shine an extra bright light on #WorldMentalHealth today, and for the rest of October.

We bring you The Big Burn Out — a content series made up of honest personal essays, expert advice and practical recommendations.

We might think that stress is just an inevitable part of working and living in the modern day, but it can be harmful if not properly managed. Stress is common but it should not go ignored. First, it's important to understand that stress is our body's natural response to threat. "This is often called 'fight, flight, or freeze,'" Dr. Sherry Benton, psychologist and founder and chief science officer of online therapy service TAO Connect, told POPSUGAR. "Under normal circumstances, we return to normal functioning after a short burst of action. However, when stress is constant and persists over long periods of time, all kinds of bad things can happen."

What exactly are these "bad things?" First off, adrenaline and cortisol (the stress hormones) can rev up your heart — but long-term stress can be especially dangerous as ongoing, high cortisol levels can lead to the following issues:

  • Heartburn
  • Insomnia
  • Heart disease
  • Weakened immune system
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Stomach problems
  • Infertility
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Lost libido
  • Change in menstruation
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

According to Dr. Benton, the longer stress goes unmanaged, the worse the consequences are on your health. Chronic stress that lasts even a week or more may result in anxiety, insomnia, and digestive problems. If it persists for longer periods of time, more serious mental and physical health concerns, such as depression and heart disease, can develop. "Managing stress is essential to long-term health," she said.

Best Ways to Manage Stress

  1. Mindfulness meditation: Dr. Benton shared that researchers are finding this method to be highly effective in reducing symptoms of stress. As little as a few minutes per day have proven to make people feel more energized and refreshed.
  2. Exercise: Aerobic exercise in particular has proven to be a great stress reducer. If you haven't been exercising, start small with 10- or 20-minute walks, but try to get outside as much as possible. "There is some research that has found that exercising outside and in nature is more effective for mental health and cognitive functioning than exercising in a gym," Dr. Benton said.
  3. Have fun: It's essential to laugh, experience new things, and find time to spend time with those you love. All these things have the ability to stimulate your brain and nervous system and counteract the fight, flight, or freeze response, and ultimately de-stress you.
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