Managing Stress: How to Address the Effects of Stress on Your Quality of Life
Reviewed by Dr. Jonathan Bonnet, MD, MPH
Whether we like it or not, stress is a natural part of our everyday lives. Stress can warn us about a potential threat to our lives, motivate us to finish an important work deadline, or impair our quality of life. When experienced chronically, stress can have harmful effects on our mental and physical health.
Though we can’t always avoid stress, we can condition ourselves to recognize its impact on our well-being and learn how to incorporate strategies to overcome and mitigate its impacts on our health.
What is stress?
Stress is a natural, survival response. Stress affects the body in a number of ways, including an increase of the hormone cortisol, also known as the stress hormone. Produced in the adrenal glands, cortisol triggers the survival response known as “fight-or-flight” mode–a response that evolved to enable people to react quickly to life-threatening situations.
During fight-or-flight mode, many of the body’s resources get redirected toward survival. Functions that help to maintain libido, immunity, and the gut, get left by the wayside. Instead, body responses include:
- Dilated pupils
- Increased heart rate
- Increased blood flow to the muscles
- Increased respiratory rate
- Increased blood pressure
- Increased muscle tension
Though these changes can help save our lives during acute moments of stress or danger, they can also produce harmful effects on the body when experienced chronically.
In what ways can stress impact my health?
The hormone cortisol can be helpful in short bursts (like when you’re under stress and have to fight or run from a real threat), but it can also be damaging if the body is constantly under stress.
Specifically, chronic stress and extended cortisol production can result in:
- Increased inflammation
- Impaired digestive functions
- Impaired immune functions (which can lead to disease)
- Appetite changes
- Impaired memory (stress has been shown to kill brain cells over time)
- Impaired cognition, learning, and judgement
- Increase in blood sugar and insulin (which can contribute to weight gain)
- Increased heart rate and oxygen demand (which may increase the risk of myocardial infarction)
- Constricted blood vessels
- Impaired quality of life
- Impaired mental health
Everyone’s response to stress is unique. Though stress can have a myriad of adverse effects on the body, it’s clear that chronic, unmanaged stress can have a damaging effect on your quality of life and sense of well-being.
Can the way I perceive stress affect my health?
Scientists have long examined the adverse effects that stress can have on our bodies. But there may be some instances in which stress can be beneficial.
One study found that how a person perceives stress may have as big an impact on their health as the stressful event itself.
In its findings, participants who viewed stress the least negatively had the lowest risk of death of anyone in the study—even when compared to participants who reported experiencing less stress.
What’s more, some people who report stress as beneficial rather than anxiety-provoking may experience different biological mechanisms: Instead of constricted blood vessels, which can be damaging to cardiovascular health, their vessels can remain relaxed. In some cases, their vascular response mimics what happens during aerobic exercise, when arteries dilate and the heart actually pumps more blood.
Scientists have found that changes happen on a hormonal level, too. During a more positive reaction to stress, the body makes a smaller amount of the stress hormone cortisol, while increasing production of oxytocin, which can be a powerful mediator of anti-stress.
These results suggest that our perception of stress may be as dangerous to our health as stress itself. For some, viewing stress as a beneficial event may even be good for health in the long run.
Can I measure my stress levels?
Measuring your stress may not seem straightforward, but there are several techniques that can be used to measure the effects of stress on the body and mind:
- Perceived Stress Scale (PSS): The Perceived Stress Scale is a psychological tool that can help to measure the perception of stress. Designed for use in communities with at least a junior high school education, the items are easy to understand and follow.
- General Anxiety Disorder Screening: If you suspect that chronic stress may be a sign of an anxiety disorder, a provider or mental health professional may recommend a general anxiety disorder screening exam.
- Body signals: Measuring specific body signals can work to monitor stress levels in and out of clinical settings, including heart rate variability (HRV), electrodermal activity (EDA), salivary alpha-amylase (sAA) and electroencephalogram (EEG) values. Some of these values, like HRV, can even be monitored at home with certain wearable devices.
- Serum and salivary cortisol testing: In some cases, your provider may use cortisol testing to diagnose or rule out a handful of specific and severe conditions.
How to decrease stress levels
Thankfully, there are several strategies that are shown to help manage or reduce stress. Just keep in mind that it can take some trial and error before finding the right strategy for you and your body.
- Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR): Evidence shows that mindfulness-based stress reduction can effectively reduce and manage stress in many applications. MBSR techniques may include the “body scan” technique, gentle yoga, stretching sequences, and sitting meditation. Many of these interventions can also be adjusted to address specific stress-management needs, like those of cancer patients.
- Exercise: There’s no getting around it—moving your body on a regular basis is good for your mental and physical health. Studies show that exercise helps to reduce stress, increase endorphins, boost mood, and even support brain health. However, it’s important to note that maximal intensity type of workouts can have a temporary dampening effect on the immune system (though they are beneficial in the long run).
- Therapeutic journaling: Keeping a therapeutic journal can help you to manage your mood by helping to identify triggers and symptoms that may resurface in the future. One study found that patients who adhered to a 12-week online journaling program reported less depression and anxiety after just one month, while also reporting greater resilience by the end of the program.
- Deep breathing techniques: During a stress response, breathing becomes fast and shallow as the body increases heart rate and blood flow to the muscles. Deep breathing practices can help counteract this state, lower blood pressure, and produce a relaxation response. Evidence suggests that deep breathing practices, including the box-breathing and 4-7-8 breathing techniques, can help to reduce stress and produce a feeling of calm.
The bottom line
Stress is inevitable—but that doesn’t mean it needs to take over your life. Understanding how your body is affected by stress is the first step to finding the right stress management techniques for you. If you’re unsure about where to start, Forfend can help. Our whole person wellness exams can help you optimize your approach to wellness and stress management techniques.