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Have you ever felt stressed? You may understand what that phrase means, but in a technical, scientific way, do you really know what stress is? How does stress affect your health?

Stress can affect your health in a positive way, or a negative way. While acute stress is a normal, adaptive reaction that can actually help you, chronic stress can cause a host of both mental and physical health problems. This can include chronic depression, headaches, high blood pressure, insomnia, and other serious consequences.

You know that it can be a problem, but how are you supposed to resolve stress issues when you only have a vague notion of what stress really is and how it impacts you?

Let’s take a minute to learn a little more about stress and see if it helps.

What Is Stress?

Stress — or more specifically a stress response — is a term used to describe how your body reacts to environmental changes. At the most basic level, your body will experience stress whenever it is forced to face changes. These can be changes in the seasons, your career, your own body, or virtually anything else. If the change requires you to adapt on any level, then that change will induce a stress response.

In general, stress can be good for you by stimulating productive physiological actions and helping you to adapt, grow, and overcome challenges. However, in the mental health profession, chronic stress is a common area of focus that needs to be addressed.

How Does Stress Affect Your Health?

Stress can affect your health in different ways — some can even be positive! It evolved in organisms with complex nervous systems for a reason: it is, in fact, adaptive. Or at least, it can be.

Acutely, in small doses, it’s actually a positive thing for your mental health. It’s normal, adaptive, and can help you go farther and achieve more. Its purpose ties into the “fight or flight reaction.” It keeps an organism safe during times of sudden danger.

But when stress is chronic, it can devastate not only your mental health, but your physical health as well.

When and How Is Stress Good for You?

Wait, stress can be good for you? It absolutely can, and in fact, some amount of stress is vital to good health. Before you can truly conquer stress management, it’s important to understand when stress is beneficial.

The key to healthy stress is that it ends. Small, manageable moments of stress are stimulating biologically and psychologically. Stress responses can help your mentality. They can help you push for better fitness, find motivation, and identify and respond to genuine danger.

Stress responses help you work harder and longer. They can empower you to skip meals, stay awake longer, and bring out more from your body than is normal. They can improve and sustain focus. In all of these ways, stress responses are good for you.

Knowing that, it’s important to find ways to introduce stress responses on a somewhat regular basis, as long as you read through the next section to understand when stress is harmful.

How Is Stress Bad?

Stress becomes a problem when there is no relief.

Chronic stress is when your body stays in an elevated state nonstop. Running at 100% all of the time creates physical and psychological strain. You intuitively know that you need rest on a regular basis.

Chronic stress means that you never take a break from the stress response. Even when you sleep, your body is releasing hormones that are designed to drive you beyond your normal limits. Eventually, that comes with a price.

Too much stress will lead to exhaustion and burnout. Beyond that, there are real medical conditions that can be tied to stress. It’s important to understand the warning signs. The following symptoms are common to excessive stress:

  • Headaches
  • Upset Stomach
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Chest Pain
  • Poor sleep
  • Sexual dysfunction and poor libido
  • Panic Attacks
  • Depression
  • Anxiety

There are even more issues that can be tied to stress, but these are the most common. Especially if you have more than one of these symptoms, consider how stress might be contributing to how you feel.

How Can You Manage Stress?

Now that you know how stress works and what it does, it’s time to consider stress management. The goal is to experience healthy stress responses without pushing yourself too far. The second half is what challenges most people.

Stress management techniques can help you find a way to turn off the stress response and find invaluable rest.

Ironically, one of the best stress management tools is exercise. Technically, exercise induces a physical stress response. Your body releases hormones that help you get through the exercise, and that counts as a stress response.

The reason a workout is so valuable is that it has a planned end. Even though you’re inducing stress, you’re also deliberately ending it and inducing rest. Coming down from the stress response of a workout can also help you come down from general, chronic stress responses. On top of that, exercise makes you feel good, helps your brain, and can help you sleep — all of which also help with stress management.

Mindfulness helps a lot, too. Meditation and other mindfulness techniques can help you identify sources of chronic stress and then find ways to address them. Any time you can turn off a source of stress, you are treating the root cause of the problem.

Lastly, cognitive behavioral therapy is a great resource for managing stress. When you work with a professional, you can gain insight into your own behavioral patterns and learn healthy coping mechanisms that empower you to manage your stress.

For some, stress management techniques alone are not enough. Medical intervention can be necessary.

For that, you should always work with a licensed healthcare provider. They can help you explore options, like TMS therapy. When you have more options available, you can work with your healthcare providers to find something that truly works for you.

Chronic stress will devastate your mind and your body. Fortunately, there are options out there for managing it effectively, keeping your stress levels low so you can feel your best.

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