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Stress and chronic disease: A toxic relationship

Home About us Remarkable You Your wellness Stress and chronic disease: A toxic relationship

Why dialing back stress is critical for better health

“I ate stress for breakfast,” 33-year-old Regan White said of life in her 20s. “I had always taken on a fair amount of stress. I went to an Ivy League college. Every night was an all-nighter. I graduated in three years. If something was a challenge, I was all over it.”

The stress machine took on a whole different meaning when she started working for a group of community newspapers in her mid-20s. “The stress just piled up. I never slept. I was writing, editing, working all the time. I was helping to care for my ailing grandmother, who lived with my family,” she said.

Her hair began to fall out – subtly at first and then in massive clumps. She gained weight, despite working out when she could. But then the symptoms became more menacing, including massive mood swings, allergic reactions and crippling panic attacks.

“I never thought stress could do that to my body,” White said. “I thought I managed stress really well, when all along my body was sending me signals that things were terribly amiss.”

Stress and your body

White isn’t alone. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration estimates that stress costs American industries more than $300 billion annually. And studies show 3 out of 4 doctor’s visits are due to stress-related ailments and complaints.

“Stress isn’t inherently a bad thing. It developed in our ancestors as a way to escape danger,” said Kenneth Hamby, MD, of Novant Health Oceanside Family Medicine. “It’s a physiological response that heightens awareness and prepares the body to confront or flee a perceived threat.”

When stress is encountered, a chain reaction occurs in the body that releases a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline increases heart rate, elevates blood pressure and boosts energy. Cortisol increases sugars in the bloodstream, enhances your brain’s use of sugar and increases the availability of tissue-repairing substances, while also curbing nonessential functions. It suppresses the digestive and reproductive systems, alters the immune system and slows growth processes.

In an ideal world, after a stress has passed, hormone levels drop to normal and body functions return to baseline levels. But when stress becomes chronic, the fight-or-flight process remains activated. “The effects of long-term activation of the stress-response system can be crippling,” Dr. Hamby said. And it doesn’t help that, today, stress comes from many sources – routine stress (the everyday stuff), sudden stress (illness or divorce) and traumatic stress (war, major accidents or natural disasters).

Stress and your health

Stress symptoms can include sweating palms, faster pulse, quicker breathing and muscle tensing. Chronic stress weakens the immune system and can lead to chronic disease, along with anxiety; depression; digestive and sleep problems; weight gain; memory and concentration impairment; and heart disease, including heart attacks arrhythmias and, in some cases, death.

“When you live with chronic stress, your body never gets that signal to relax,” Dr. Hamby said. “It’s in a constant state of elevated heart function and higher blood pressure, and it puts a lot of wear on itself. Add that to the behavioral changes that can come with stress, and you’ve got a dangerous combination.”

People often cope with stress and its effects through unhealthy foods, smoking, inactivity and alcohol, which are all significant risk factors for chronic diseases including heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.

“Some of my patients get stuck in a spiral of stress causing health issues, and health issues then causing stress. It’s a difficult place to be, and many feel powerless to break the cycle. That’s where I can help by managing the physical concerns and connecting them to help for the emotional side of things,” Dr. Hamby said.

Breaking the cycle

Studies show that a positive attitude focused on feelings of happiness, joy and enthusiasm can reduce the risk of heart disease. But when you’re stressed, shifting to a mood of contentment may be hard to do.

“The key is to start with small steps: identify what’s causing your stress, take note of the physical effects you feel, make a commitment to yourself to spend time each day doing something you love,” said Dr. Hamby. “Know that it’s OK to reach out for help if you feel overwhelmed or like you can’t quite cope on your own.”

Dr. Hamby recommended setting aside time for exercise, even a casual walk; strengthening supportive relationships; setting priorities to help avoid overloading on responsibilities; and learning to reset your mind when you sense yourself dwelling on negatives.

White knew she had to make some big changes when her chronic stress began impacting her quality of life. She left her high-stress job, reprioritized and set a goal to run her first half marathon. “I ran that first half marathon four years ago. I’ve run 10 more since,” she said. “It was a long way out from my chronic stress, and I have to remain vigilant any time I begin getting overstressed, overworked or overtired again. Working out consistently, reprioritizing and saying, ‘No,’ have really helped.”

She added, “I’m so glad I listened to my body and made changes when I did, though. No amount of stress is worth sacrificing your health.”

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