Chronic stress can be particularly damaging to your overall health and well-being especially as you age. Some studies show that 43 percent of all adults suffer adverse health effects from stress and 75 to 90 percent of all doctor’s office visits are said to be for stress-related ailments and complaints. Learn to recognize the symptoms of chronic stress and try some recommended techniques to reduce stress.
Stress generally falls into one of two categories:
- Eustress, which is “good” stress, or stress occurring from positive events, such as moving into a new house or having a new grandchild
- Distress, which is stress resulting from negative events, such as losing a job or having health problems
Stress can be lifesaving; it activates the reactions that result in your jumping out of the way of a speeding car or grabbing onto a tree branch if you’re falling.
However, if your stress reactions are activated too often, stress can become chronic. Instead of leveling off after the crisis passes, your stress hormones, heart rate, and blood pressure remain elevated. Extended or repeated activation of the stress response takes a heavy toll on your body and accelerates the aging process.
Your Body’s Built-In Response System: How it’s Supposed to Work
Human bodies were designed for stress. The autonomic nervous system, consisting of the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems, continually attempts to balance your physical and emotional reactions to stress. Both distress and eustress cause physical and mental adaptations, such as an increase in your heart rate, dilation of your pupils, and a rise in your blood sugar. These responses are orchestrated by your sympathetic nervous system, and allow you to respond quickly to any changes in your world by helping you move faster, see better, and think quickly.
Each time your body experiences stress, the same biological and physiological responses are set off in a chain reaction known as the stress syndrome.
But stress isn’t meant to be a chronic condition. After the perceived “danger” has passed, the parasympathetic nervous system normally takes over, allowing your body to revert back to its normal “non-stressed” state.
Observing the Tolls or Chronic Stress
In today’s fast-paced world, many events can initiate a stress reaction. If your life lurches from perceived crisis to crisis, your ability to wind down after the immediate danger has passed becomes damaged. This reaction happens quite often with today’s busy lifestyles. Chronic stress occurs when acute stress responses keep your body on alert continuously, not allowing it to return to a state of homeostasis, the balanced state of health. If you’re faced with continuous stressors, over time, the sympathetic system becomes overwhelmed. When that happens, stress can cause serious mental and physical health issues. Chronic stress can be especially damaging as you age.
Recognizing chronic stress is the first step to combating its negative effects on your life. After you identify the symptoms, you can develop techniques to cope with it without being overwhelmed by it.
The physical effects
Chronic stress can take a heavy physical toll. The ongoing stress response causes the hypothalamus and pituitary gland to release a chemical known as ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone). ACTH, known as the “stress hormone,” stimulates the adrenal gland to produce and release cortisol and stress can keep cortisol at an increased level. Cortisol is responsible for helping with many of the body’s functions, but the functions are different when cortisol is released in response to stress than when it’s released in normal situations. Normally, cortisol helps with glucose metabolism, controlling inflammation, boosting the immune system, and regulating blood pressure. Cortisol released under stress can give you an extra burst of energy and can depress your response to pain. However, when cortisol release is prolonged due to chronic stress, it can have adverse effects on your body. Cortisol levels are typically lowest during the night and highest in the morning, with a peak level at around 7:00 a.m.
Stress can contribute to many physical problems:
- Arthritis and vague aches and pains
- Asthma or breathlessness
- Being accident-prone
- Clenched muscles
- Headaches and migraines
- Heart problems, such as a racing heart
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Increased use of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs
- Premature aging of immune system cells that causes accelerated aging in the following areas:
- Impaired cognitive performance
- Suppressed thyroid function
- Blood sugar imbalances such as hyperglycemia
- Decreased bone density
- Decrease in muscle tissue
- Higher blood pressure
- Lowered immunity and inflammatory responses in the body, which leads to more frequent colds, upper-respiratory infections, and other illnesses
- Increased abdominal fat, which is associated with heart attacks, strokes, the development of higher levels of “bad” cholesterol (LDL) and lower levels of “good” cholesterol (HDL)
- Rapid weight changes
- Skin conditions, such as acne breakouts, hives, rashes and excessive sweating
- Stomach problems, such as constipation, diarrhea, indigestion, and nausea
- Stress is no longer believed to cause stomach ulcers, but stress is still thought to aggravate and exacerbate up to 45 percent of ulcers.
- Teeth grinding
Continual stress response and the hormonal influences can produce inflammation and are most commonly associated with worsening of autoimmune or inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus, and inflammatory bowel disease. Some hormones, including the glucocorticoids, are known to be immunosuppressive, meaning they suppress your immune system—not something you want when you’re trying to heal.
The mental and psychological effects
Too much stress can upset your mental health. For example, the persistent stress-induced elevations of cortisol, which affects hormone neurotransmitters and the formation of free radicals, can contribute to age-related disorders including Alzheimer’s disease and late-life depression.
The following are some general mental and psychological effects of chronic stress:
- Mental symptoms
- Persistent negative thoughts
- Poor memory
- Loss of concentration
- Bad dreams
- Poor decision making
- Emotional symptoms
- Anxiety and worry
- Mood swings
- Crying spells
- Lack of enthusiasm
- Feelings of alienation
- Loss of confidence
- A general sense of dissatisfaction
- Behavioral symptoms
- Changes in eating habits
- Changes in exercise habits
- Changes in sleeping habits
Paying attention to your stress response
Staying in tune with your body and becoming more aware of stress symptoms when they first appear can help you begin to relax before your stress levels are out of control. Watch for the following signs of increased stress:
- Are you a clencher? Check your body for tension to see whether you’re clenching your muscles. Start at the top of your head and work your way down. Feel the muscles in your face, jaw, and neck. Move down to your shoulders, chest, and back. Keep moving your way down to your arms, hands, and torso. Do you feel tension in your thighs, calves, feet, or toes?
- Do your hands get cold? Place your hand on the side of your neck just above your collar. If your hand is noticeably cooler than your neck, your hand temperature indicates that your body is probably stressed.
- Do you sweat? Excessive sweating is an involuntary stress response caused by the secretion of certain stress hormones. Many people perspire when they’re tense.
- Does your pulse race? If your heart is beating above 100 beats per minute (bpm) without exertion, chances are good that your body is responding to stress. Most people at rest have a pulse rate between 60 to 80 bpm, although some have a resting pulse as high as 100 bpm.
- Do you have rapid breathing? Rapid, shallow breathing indicates tension. When you’re tense, you tighten your stomach muscles and breathe through your chest, which isn’t very expandable. When you’re relaxed, your breathing is slow and deep with your stomach muscles relaxed.
- Do you ruminate about things? If you’re constantly thinking about the same thing over and over in your mind day in and day out, it may also be a sign of a stressor. Ruminating can be a tipoff that you need to reduce the amount of time that you’re focusing on something.
Making Personal Strides to Reduce Stress
Learning to manage and reduce your stress load may improve the quality of your life, and give you a better chance to live a long and healthier one. Lots of tools, tips, and techniques can help you reduce stress and figure out how to relax. Recognizing stress is the first and hardest thing for many people to do. Finding and focusing on sources of stress is helpful, because you’re concentrating on what you can do to change rather than letting stress continue to grow until it’s out of control.
If you need professional help with stress, it’s most likely because you let the unrecognized stress build for too long. If you’re ready to start reducing stress on your own, think about your life, find the stressors, and then develop a way to manage them.
Consider trying one of these stress busters.
- Accentuating the positive
Researchers say that people with more positive attitudes may deal with stress better and have a stronger will to live. People who feel good about themselves as they get older live about seven and a half years longer than the bitter, negative types.
How can you keep a positive attitude? Two things that help are:
- Accepting that you can’t control some events in your life
- Being assertive and positive instead of aggressive in stressful situations
- Laugh it off
Part of staying positive is being able to see humor in situations, including those that may normally stress you out. Laughter really is the best medicine when it comes to reducing your stress. Laughing reduces the production of cortisol (which accelerates aging) and increases the level of health-enhancing hormones like endorphins and neurotransmitters. Laughter also increases the number of antibody-producing cells and enhances the effectiveness of T cells. What that boils down to is a stronger immune system and fewer physical effects from stress.
- Employing self-relaxation techniques
It’s easy to say “Just relax” when your stress levels are building, but it’s easier to do if you’ve developed some relaxation techniques. Try the following methods of self-relaxation:
- Practicing breathing techniques: Deep, slow breathing is one of the easiest and most cleansing stress relievers with a variety of body-benefits. Deep breathing helps oxygenate your blood, which “wakes up” your brain, relaxes your muscles, and quiets your mind. You focus on relaxing your body and releasing air on each breath. Deep breathing is easy to practice because you can breathe anywhere, and it works quickly to relieve your stress.
- Meditating: Meditation builds on the technique of deep breathing and goes one step farther. After you master the technique of slow, deep, cleansing breaths to calm your body and restore and calm you breathing to a normal, relaxed state, you can begin to meditate. In some forms of meditation, your brain enters a state that’s similar to sleep, but it carries some added benefits that you can’t achieve as well in any other state, including the release of certain hormones that promote health. In other meditation techniques, the focus is on recognizing and accepting your feelings in that moment without trying to change them and without dwelling on them.
During meditation, you clear your mind of any focus or distraction which enables you to detach from stressors and restores your body to a state of calm, essentially giving your body time to repair itself. Breathing returns to normal, so you use oxygen more efficiently. Your heart rate slows down, your blood pressure comes down, and anxiety levels decrease so you sweat less.
A tremendous benefit of meditation for anti-aging is that your adrenal glands produce less cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline, which have been associated with negative effects on aging. By relaxing the body in this manner, you prevent damage from the physical effects of stress. You also can make additional positive hormones and your immune function improves.
- Practicing guided imagery and visualization: Guided imagery and visualization techniques involve envisioning a relaxing scene or picturing yourself achieving goals or increasing your performance in some specific way. People who practice guided imagery go into a deeply relaxed state that provides significant stress-reduction benefits, including physically relaxing the body quickly and efficiently.
- Practicing progressive muscle relaxation: by tensing and relaxing all the muscle groups in your body you can relieve tension and feel much more relaxed in minutes, with no special training or equipment. Follow these steps:
- Start by tensing all the muscles in your face, holding a tight grimace for ten seconds.
- Completely relax the muscles for ten seconds.
Repeat Steps 1 and 2 with your neck, followed by your shoulders, and so on, all the way down to your toes.
You can do this exercise anywhere and as you practice, you’ll notice that you can relax more quickly and easily, reducing tension as quickly as it starts.
- Calming yourself with music: Music can be a powerful tool to aid relaxation and relieve stress. Music therapy has shown numerous health benefits for people with conditions ranging from stress to cancer. Music has been found to have an impact on hormones and neurotransmitters in the brain and has direct anxiety-lowering actions. Listening to, performing, or writing music can lower your blood pressure, relax your body, and calm your mind. It’s often used as part of stress-management programs or in conjunction with exercise and is used in a variety of healthcare settings with good results for dealing with illness and stress.
Exercising away your stress
Exercise is one of your body’s best natural cures for stress. It leads to the release of endorphins, which has a healing effect on the body and mind and protects against some of the harmful effects of stress. Researchers have found that those who exercise have fewer stress-related health problems, which provides a positive impact on healthy aging.
Exercise can be as simple as a walk around your neighborhood every evening or a complicated as working out with a personal trainer. Find the type of exercise that works for you and your body and be consistent!
Yoga for example, is an excellent way to reduce stress through exercise. Yoga is a series of personal stretches and exercises that bring together your physical, mental and spiritual aspects of life. Yoga teaches you a series of stationary and moving poses, breathing and concentration techniques to help you get in tune with your body, your mind, and your emotions in the present moment. Yoga is designed to balance the different systems of your body by taking your mind off the causes of stress, and having you gently stretch your body in ways that massage your internal organs.
Tossing out poor habits
When you’re feeling stressed, it’s natural to look for ways to cope. However, some of the things you turn to when stressed may actually be more destructive or create more stress on your body than you’re relieving, creating a vicious cycle. Three coping mechanisms that fall into this category are caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol.
*Agin, B., & Perkins, S. (2008). Healthy aging for dummies. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Pub.
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