Feeling stress every now and then is normal. It is your body’s way of responding to difficult events, such as getting fired, giving a speech, or arguing with someone.
However, some situations that cause stress may linger, such as ongoing problems with your work, school, or home life. When stress is persistent — and you cannot find a way to control it — it can take a toll on your physical and mental health.
Health risks of stress
Chronic or ongoing stress can increase your risk of the following conditions:
Stressful events trigger your body’s “fight or flight” response — physical and hormonal changes that help you survive an external threat. Your heart rate and blood pressure increase. Your body produces stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. When the stressful event is over, these changes should be reverted. But that is not always the case.
When you experience chronic stress, your body does not get the signal to shut off the stress response. Over time, cardiovascular and hormonal changes can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease.
Stress can also lead you to make bad lifestyle choices that impact your heart health. You may overeat or eat unhealthy foods. You may sit for long periods and not get regular exercise. Or you may smoke or drink excessively. According to the American Heart Association, these habits or choices can all contribute to high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which are major risk factors for cardiovascular disease and stroke.
Poor lifestyle habits triggered by stress can contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association. Stress hormones can also increase your blood glucose levels and insulin resistance, according to the Diabetes Teaching Center at the University of California, San Francisco.
According to a review published in the International Journal of Preventive Medicine, insulin resistance caused by chronic stress can lead to an increase in belly fat, which can contribute to weight gain and obesity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines obesity as a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher.
Stress can also disrupt the brain functions responsible for self-control. Under stress, you may have difficulty limiting how much you eat, or you may use food to soothe your stress. According to Harvard Health, stress may also increase your cravings for high-fat, high-sugar foods. Consuming more calories than you need or burn in a day can lead to obesity or make it difficult to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.
Anxiety and depression
Constant exposure to stress can create physical and chemical imbalances in your brain, according to a review published in the journal Chronic Stress. This imbalance can affect not only your mood but also how you think and make decisions. Left untreated, chronic stress can make it difficult for your brain to return to normal functioning.
Both short-term and long-term stress can cause insomnia, according to the National Library of Medicine; that is, you have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or both. Insomnia is more than an inconvenience. It is a sleep disorder that may require treatment.
Cardiovascular changes owing to stress, as well as continual increased cortisol levels, may increase your risk of dementia, according to a study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
According to the American Psychological Association, chronic stress can contribute to or worsen other health problems, such as:
- Gastrointestinal problems, such as inflammatory bowel disease and irritable bowel syndrome.
- Skin problems, such as eczema and acne.
- Respiratory problems, such as asthma and COPD.
- Reproductive problems, including problems with fertility and menstruation.
When should you see a doctor for stress?
To head off these health problems, receiving treatment for chronic stress is important. Treatments may include psychotherapy or medications.
To know you need help, you first have to recognize what chronic stress looks like in your life. Signs and symptoms may include:
- Feeling overwhelmed.
- Difficulty in concentrating.
- Sexual problems.
- Difficulty in falling asleep or staying asleep.
- Tiredness or fatigue.
- Headaches or unexplained muscle aches and pains.
- Anger, sadness, or irritability.
- Digestive problems, such as heartburn, indigestion, nausea, and stomach pain.
- Diarrhea or constipation.
- Weight loss or gain.
- Excessive drinking. Illegal drug use.
- Thoughts of self-harm or suicide.
You should see your doctor if stress interferes with your daily life or if you cannot get your stress under control.
If you have thoughts of suicide or self-harm, immediately ask for help: call or text 988. This is the new three-digit dialing code for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, now known as the 988 suicide & crisis lifeline.