Stress and poor mental health are one of the biggest challenges that we’re facing today. Sadly, even though we know this is the case, we are still not taking it seriously enough.
Stress contributes to multiple mental and physical health problems, but it also impacts us in significant ways that many of us are not aware of.
Common Effects of Stress
Stress typically affects our body, mood, and behavior, per Mayo Clinic.
Most symptoms of stress are either fully physically experienced or appear as obvious mental states or behaviors. Some of the most common effects of prolonged and short-term stress include headaches, muscle tension or pain, stomach or digestive issues, sleep disturbances, anxiety, restlessness, inability to focus, irritability, depression, anger, drug or alcohol abuse, or social withdrawal.
Every effect of stress is to be taken seriously, but we must understand that stress can also lead to debilitating cognition and deadly immunity issues, including cancer.
Stress and Cognition Issues
The physiological impact of stress on body function starts at a level that is invisible to the human eye. Per a journal of studies (Yaribeygi et al., 2017), the activation of stress results in the production and release of glucocorticosteroids (steroid hormones) which travel through the blood-brain barrier and can lead to long-term effects on processing and cognition.
Exposure to stress can cause changes in the brain that manifest as behavioral, cognitive, and mood disorders. Although age is typically a known factor that affects cognition, exposure to high doses of adrenal steroids shows the same level of decline in cognition as older adults do.
Mild stress, such as occasional stress (Example: I forgot to study for the exam, and now I am cramming), is reported as helpful in some studies, but as the intensity and frequency increase, it can cause cognitive disorders that directly affect memory and judgment.
High levels of stress hormones negatively affect the frontal lobe of the brain where short-term memory is stored.
Neurologist Dr. Chrystal Reed says:
“When our memory is clouded by stress, our attention span to learn, recall, and focus is reduced.”
Stress and the Immune System
The passing of steroid stress hormones through the blood-brain barrier also has a direct impact on the immune system. Per the Yaribeygi journal article, “The effect of stress on the immune system is now an accepted relationship or association.”
Many of us understand that stress can play havoc on our immune system, but what we do not take seriously is that this can lead to ‘the invisible killer,’ cancer.
Stress decreases the activity of cytotoxic T lymphocytes (immune cells that destroy viruses) and natural killer cells, which is reported to “lead to growth of malignant cells, genetic instability, and tumor expansion.”
Managing Your Stress
The National Institute of Mental Health advises that if anxiety is led on by stress, if it does not go away, and if it interferes with your life, it could affect your health. Untreated anxiety can lead to problems with sleeping, immunity, digestion, heart, or reproductive system issues. You may also be at a higher risk for developing a mental illness, such as an anxiety disorder or depression.
Knowing the difference between stress and anxiety can help you know if you need to seek help.
Stress, per NIMH, is a response to an external cause (For example: taking a big text or arguing with a friend). And stress should go away once the situation is resolved. Stress can be positive (Example: I almost lost my job due to lateness. My alarm is now set to an earlier time!). Stress can be negative (Example: I worried all day, and my stomach was so upset!).
Anxiety, as reported by NIHM, is internal and it is our stress reaction. Anxiety involves a nagging sense of apprehension or dread that does not go away and interferes with how we live our life. It is constant, even when there is no immediate threat.
To manage stress, diminish anxiety, and move toward mental well-being, you can try to stay positive, strengthen your social connections, process your emotions, and you can reduce stress by setting priorities, showing kindness to yourself, partaking in outlets (i.e., yoga, meditating, journaling, exercising), or simply taking care of yourself.
Learn more: 5 Ways to Move Toward Mental Wellbeing
Seeking More Help
Sometimes, when you have done everything that you can do, you can still feel stuck in place with the symptoms of stress and anxiety. Self-care may not be enough. It may be time to seek help, and there is no shame in doing so.
We can help you work through and solve the problems that you have in your life.
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