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How Long-Term Stress Affects Your Health

April 05, 2022
Life asks a lot of us — spouses, jobs, friends, kids, and pets — and it can all add up. Sometimes it’s more than we can handle. That’s when stress kicks in.
Stress is your body’s response to danger. You know the feeling — sweaty palms, racing heartbeat, an upset stomach. The hormones released during times of stress used to help people face physical threats. But because we don’t fight saber-toothed tigers anymore, the hormones aren’t as helpful to us on a regular basis. When stress lasts for weeks instead of just minutes or hours, your system goes into overdrive and those stress hormones can disrupt many of your body’s processes.
What is stress?
Stress is about the relationship between the demands of your life and the emotional resources you have to meet these demands. Demands are usually things like your job or something going on with your family. Your health, your outlook on life, your relationships with family and friends, and your money situation affect how deep your emotional reserves go. Once your emotional resources are drained, you have a hard time meeting the demands life puts on you, and you start to feel stressed.
Stress warning signs
The early signs of stress aren’t always obvious, but if you typically notice any of the following symptoms, it may be an indication that your stress level is too high:
  • Muscle tension or headaches
  • Irritability or sadness
  • Inability to focus or remember things
  • Lack of energy
  • Trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Teeth grinding or jaw clenching
  • Lack of appetite or upset stomach
Reduce your stress
It can be difficult to get a handle on stress once it sets in. That’s why it can help to prevent stress from taking over in the first place by improving situations you can control. This includes:
  • Setting realistic expectations on what you can accomplish. It can be difficult to cut back on commitments, but doing so can help you stay well. Remember, it’s okay to say “no.”
  • Planning ahead to prevent problems. If you know there are certain things, people, or situations that cause you stress, come up with a plan for how to handle them so you’re prepared.
  • Prioritizing what’s important when many things need your attention. Treating everything as the most important thing on your to-do list is a good way to build stress. Try to prioritize and take on tasks one at a time.
  • Asking for help from family and friends. Lean on your support system to keep your stress levels low.
Stress that builds up or lasts too long can take a toll on your health and well-being. It affects your job, relationships, and enjoyment of life. And it’s linked to higher risks of heart disease, digestive problems, high blood pressure, depression, and other serious health conditions. If you’re finding it hard to cope with stress, call your doctor or a mental health professional. They can guide you on how to respond effectively to stressful situations and help you generate positive thoughts and feelings. You can also access resources through the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Massachusetts.
April is Stress Awareness Month and a good reminder to take your health in your own hands.