Chronic stress: Your body is trying to tell you something. What you can do.

The prolonged release of stress hormones increases the level of inflammation in the body and can lead to longer-term health effects.

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Research shows stress affects the nervous system and can even cause structural changes in the brain.

Research shows stress affects the nervous system and can even cause structural changes in the brain.

Think of them as warning signs that something isn’t right.

Maybe you’re not sleeping well or getting more headaches. Or have no appetite and bouts of nausea.

Stress isn’t just a state of mind. It’s something that can create chaos in your body. Poor physical health often can signal poor mental health. 

“A lot of times, our body is trying to communicate to us when we’re not in a good spot,” says Vaile Wright, senior director of health care innovation for the American Psychological Association. 

The group’s 2020 Stress in America survey found Americans have been severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic as well as political polarization and racial discrimination. The survey found 80% of U.S. adults say the coronavirus pandemic is a significant source of stress in their life, and 60% said the various issues America faces are overwhelming. 

“We would be automatons if we didn’t have some emotional reaction or physical reaction to stress,” says Vanessa Kennedy, director of psychology of Driftwood Recovery, an addiction and mental health rehabilitation center in Texas. “But we can certainly mitigate the response ... by making sure that we check in with ourselves each day and make a conscious effort to really pay attention to our bodies.”

When someone experiences increased stress, the body releases stress hormones — cortisol and adrenaline are among the best-known. This prepares the body for fight or flight — our evolutionary response to a threat.

But when stress becomes chronic, the prolonged release of stress hormones increases the level of inflammation in the body and can lead to longer-term health effects, Kennedy says.

Research shows stress affects the nervous system and can even cause structural changes in the brain. Stress can weaken our immune system, making us more susceptible to illness. Prolonged stress also can worse existing health conditions such as cardiovascular disease or respiratory problems.

Nearly one in five Americans say their mental health has been worse during than the pandemic than the year before, according to an October report from the American Psychological Association.

“Maintaining a level of hyper-arousal isn’t really sustainable,” Wright says. “It just wears you down.”

Kennedy says sometimes it’s easier to focus on physical symptoms than to identify what you’re feeling emotionally. She advises her patients to do a daily body scan.

“We’re not going to be aware day to day as we’re just trying to put one foot in front of the other about how we’re feeling or how we’re starting to have a little more muscle tension,” she says.

To do this, she says you need to slow down: For 15 minutes, be still, and pay attention to all of your senses.

“Check in with each muscle group, from your feet to your head,” she says. “You can notice things like, ‘Oh, I’m feeling this lump in my throat,’ or, ‘I’m having a mild headache come on,’ or ‘maybe I’m having some fatigue.’ ”

You also can ask yourself:

  • Am I sleeping poorly?
  • Am I eating well?
  • Am I craving unhealthy foods?
  • Am I grinding my teeth? 
  • Do I feel body aches?

If the answer is yes to these questions, “Your body is trying to give you the signal that something either needs to change in the environment, or you need to change your reaction to what’s happening in the environment,” Kennedy says.

She says that, while stress might not feel good, our body’s responses to it are productive and likely ultimately a good thing if we can use those cues to change what’s in our control.

One of the things that can be most healing to the body is connection to another person, Kennedy says.

“There’s neurochemicals that actually get released in our brains when we’re connecting with other people in a meaningful way,” she says. “Relationships, connection with others is key.”


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