Life can be stressful. There’s relationship stress and job stress. Maybe you’re on edge about paying off those student loans or navigating your way through the current political climate. Perhaps you worry about crime, terrorism or shootings.
Stress comes in all shapes and forms—and nowadays it seems like people are more stressed out than ever.
In fact, approximately 75 percent of people in the United States experience stress on regular basis, according to the American Psychological Association—and it doesn’t look like our stress levels are going to cool off anytime soon.
In our Instagram-scrolling, app-buzzing, email-dinging lives, it can be hard to simply find the time to shut off.
And while stress tends to come and go, if you’ve been feeling stressed out day in and day out, you might want to take a look at your life, because all that stress could begin to take a serious toll on your health.
You know the feeling: first, there are the sweaty palms. Then, your heart starts to race and your stomach turns into knots.
These symptoms are the result of a surge in cortisol—a.k.a. the stress hormone—your body releases when you run into a fearful or stressful situation.
More commonly known as our “flight-or-fight” response, this reaction evolved as a survival mechanism for our ancestors who had to respond quickly to dangerous situations, like hunting in the woods for dinner or being chased by a bear.
These hormonal changes would propel them to either fight a threat or make a run for it in a matter of seconds.
That evolutionary mechanism has been passed down and now non-threatening things—such as traffic jams, a micro-managing boss or a lousy relationship—can trigger our flight-or-fight response.
Once the threat has passed, stress levels should drop. But, if your life is full of stressors, your adrenal glands will continue to pump cortisol throughout your body.
Think about the last time you felt stressed out. Chances are you didn’t feel so hot afterwards.
“In the short-term, stress can take a toll on physical health including increasing blood pressure, triggering headaches, contributing to muscles aches resulting from tension, decreased sleep, and reduced physical activity,” said Mayra Mendez, a licensed psychotherapist at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California.
In addition, all that cortisol can cause you to feel more agitated, irritable, anxious and distracted, Mendez explained. It can also upset your stomach and lead to acid reflux, diarrhea or constipation.
That’s just what stress does to your body in the short-term. Recurring, chronic stress can do even more damage.
Bills, work, family, friends, diet, sleep—there are a million reasons stress piles on. But if your stress response can’t stop firing, your body will begin to break down.
“In the long-term, stress may contribute to heart problems, nutritional deficits that impact conditions such as stomach ulcers, indigestion, irregular blood sugar regulation and digestive problems,” Mendez said.
In addition, unrelenting stress can weaken the immune system and make you more vulnerable to certain infections and illnesses, she said. Stress can also increase risk of metabolic problems, such as obesity and Type 2 diabetes.
Late or missed periods, erectile dysfunction, fertility problems and a low sex drive are common as well.
Furthermore, a new study found that high levels of stress can lead to memory loss and brain shrinkage by the time you’re 50.
People who are overly stressed tend to turn to unhealthy behaviors—such as overeating, smoking, social withdrawal or drinking—to cope. All of which can increase the risk of developing heart disease, the number one killer of Americans, according to the American Heart Association.
You’re immediately aware when acute stress is there. It’s a new, sudden feeling. On the other hand, people who suffer from chronic stress tend to get used to it, according to the APA.
Oftentimes, it can feel so comfortable and familiar, it can go ignored.
It’s crucial to be aware of your stress levels, so you can properly manage them.
The best and easiest thing to do to keep stress at bay is to get sleep, and lots of it.
Study after study has proven that the less sleep you get, the more prone you are to feeling stressed out. Take naps, minimize distractions before bed and avoid snacks and caffeine at night.
“Most important in the management of stress is sleep and downtime,” Mendez said. “Adding calm and pleasure time to life goes a long way in supporting stress management.”
In our always-on, fast-paced world, we are hit with stressor after stressor and it can be challenging to keep up. Make a point to slow down and limit your screen time. Our phones have made it so that we’re available and responsive 24/7–which, as you might expect, doesn’t help us calm down.
“Learning to set limits and boundaries on technology and allow the mind to take in the world naturally rather than always through a screen will also contribute to stress reduction,” Mendez added.
The key to managing stress is knowing what your triggers are. If you can avoid them, great. However, some stress is unavoidable. In those instances, it’s best to work toward changing your responses.
Doing so will drastically improve your overall health—now and in the years to come.
Julia Ries is a writer based in Los Angeles. When she’s not writing, there’s a good chance she’s doing yoga, walking her dog or doing yoga with her dog. Get to know her at www.juliaries.com.