Thursday, October 20, 2011

Health risks of stress and tips for dealing with it

Stress is defined as the human body's response to a change. Even though it is good in short term, it can cause harm to your body in long term. Stress can increase certain hormonal levels in the body. This can cause certain changes in long term which can cause heart attacks, stroke and various other problems.
Importance of stress in our current society
Even though our society increased its sophistication, our body's mechanisms are lagging behind in the Stone Age.

Our body has two main roles. They are rest and face threats (fight/flight). During rest, our body increases digestion of food, stores energy and do general housekeeping jobs. But in a threat it increases energy expenditure, increases metabolism and prepare our body to fight or run. 
In the stone stage, threats are not persistent. Once the caveman saves itself from a predator he can relax. But in the current society our body identifies normal day to day stressors as threat to its survival and switch to fight/flight mode. The difference is that our day to day stressors never end like in the Stone Age. 
In addition, our day to day stressors do not need a flight/fight response (anxiety). They need a calm mind to sort the things out. 

Our body is not prepared to maintain a fight/flight mode forever. Maintaining in that mode for longer duration would result in various diseases such as heart diseases and diabetes mellitus.

This maladaptation of physiology in current society makes stress one of the main causes of disease.

How stress increase the health risks

Stress increases adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol levels in the body. These hormones increase blood lipid and sugar levels. When the stress is persistent for long time, above risk factors can cause ischemic heart disease and precipitate diabetes mellitus. In addition, Stress hormones increase heart rate and power of the heart contractions. These actions could cause wear and tear of heart muscles. It could lead to heart failure and heart muscle dysfunction (cardiomyopathy). 

Stressed out heart

In addition, elevated levels of stress hormones for longer duration can cause hypertension. This could further increase the heart dysfunction.

Addition to above methods stress could lead to unhealthy coping strategies such as increased smoking, increased alcohol intake and unhealthy dietary habits (taking fast foods, salty foods).

Tips for dealing with stress
  • Don't worry about things you can't control, such as the weather.
  • Solve the little day to day problems. This can help you gain a feeling of control.
  • Prepare to the best of your ability for events you know may be stressful, such as a job interview.
  • Try to look at change as a positive challenge, not as a threat.
  • Work to resolve conflicts with other people.
  • Talk with a trusted friend, family member or counselor.
  • Set realistic goals at home and at work. Avoid overscheduling.
  • Exercise on a regular basis.
  • Eat regular, well-balanced meals and get enough sleep.
  • Meditate.
  • Participate in something you don't find stressful, such as sports, social events or hobbies.
Long term stress affects our health badly. It can cause increase heart diseases and hypertension. However, you could control your stress levels by way of good coping strategies, meditation and exercises. 

Further reading

Stress - NIH article
Stress: How to Cope Better With Life's Challenges

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