Stress doesn’t (totally) deserve its bad reputation. Short-term, or acute, stress can be beneficial. It can boost your productivity on a work project or spur you to seek shelter if caught outside during a summer thunderstorm.
Stress shows its harmful side when it sticks around longer than necessary. This is known as long-term, or chronic, stress, and it can affect practically all of the body’s organs, tissues and functions. Fortunately, making some lifestyle adjustments can help curtail chronic stress.
Acute Stress vs. Chronic Stress
When you encounter an exciting, scary or worrisome situation, a complex series of reactions kicks off. Ideally, this process develops quickly and serves a helpful purpose before running its course. This is acute stress.
With chronic stress, minor triggers provoke a major (and unnecessary) stress response, and it doesn’t ramp down. Staying locked in a state of stress for days, weeks or months can take a significant toll on your body.
The Wide-Ranging Physical Effects of Stress
Your nervous system plays a major role in how you experience stress. Its response helps shape how chronic stress affects many important bodily functions, including:
- Blood pressure. Chronic stress can affect the cardiovascular system in several ways, including contributing to high blood pressure. This can increase your risk for a heart attack.
- Breathing. If you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or another respiratory condition, long-term stress can make symptoms worse.
- You’re more likely to overeat and experience digestive symptoms, such as stomach pain, if you’re dealing with chronic stress.
- Infection prevention. When you’re stressed, your immune system is less able to protect you from germs that cause infections.
- Muscle function. Chronic stress can send muscles into a prolonged state of tension, potentially leading to headaches and low back pain.
- Long-term stress can hinder reproduction. Stress can hamper sperm production in men. In women, stress can cause irregular menstrual cycles and make getting pregnant more difficult.
Move, Sleep and Socialize: Stress Relief Tips
To help manage stress, try making a few changes to your regular routine, including:
- Get active. When you walk, run, hike, kick a ball around with your children or participate in sports, your body produces endorphins. These substances can relieve pain, improve your mood and help you sleep better—another key stress reducer.
- Make time for friends and family. Having lunch with a friend or video-chatting with your sibling can help boost your mood and remind you that you have people you can turn to for support during stressful times.
- Prioritize sleep. You need at least seven hours of sleep each night. To encourage restful nights, go to bed and wake up at consistent times, keep your bedroom cool and free of digital devices, and don’t eat meals or exercise too close to bedtime.