by Emily DiNuzzo
Constant stress can wreak havoc on the body.
Stress sometimes feels like a given in today’s go go go world, but there is a difference between run-of-the-mill stress and stress related to other, more serious conditions. Chronic stress has been linked to various health issues like depression, heart disease, and sleep problems, according to the Mayo Clinic.
That said, Amy Morin, author of “13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do,” told INSIDER that although unmanaged stress doesn’t automatically lead to other mental or physical ailments, it more specifically increases the risk of ending up with those ailments.
INSIDER spoke with Morin and other health experts about signs that mean your stress is more serious than you might think.
Your stress is reoccurring.
It doesn’t go away.
First, it’s important to recognize if your stress is chronic (long-term) or acute (short-term).
Hymie Anisman, author of “An Introduction to Stress and Health” and professor at Carleton University, told INSIDER that chronic stress could lead to you running out of ways to copei, and a change in your chemical systems — both of which impact your health.
“When [chronic] stressors occur, behavioral coping systems become overwhelmed and biological systems basically have to take over the function of coping and dealing,” Anisman said. “If we have a weak link in our system […] then you might run into some health problems.”
Dr. Nesochi Okeke-Igbokwe, a physician and health expert, said that these health problems could include a higher risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and other conditions.
“Stress activates the stress response, which results in increased release of stress hormones like cortisol,” she said. “When chronically exposed to some of these stress hormones, your health can really be compromised.”
Your stress interferes with your daily life.
It can affect relationships.
According to Morin, how you function under stress is a big indication of other health issues. For example, if your stress interferes with your daily functioning, that is often a sign of something more serious.
This could include having a tough time maintaining your job or your relationships. It might also mean you’ve lost interest in your usual activities or you have lingering sleep issues. In those cases, and if your stress persists, Morin suggests speaking with your doctor.
“Someone who feels a high level of stress may be irritable and angry more often, which can take a toll on relationships,” Morin explained further. “Relationship tension can lead to more stress. The negative patterns created by unmanaged stress can be difficult to break.”
You get sick easily.
It can weaken the immune system.
Yes, stress is even related to the common cold. In fact, Morin and Okeke-Igbokwe both said that the more stressed you are, the weaker your immune system becomes, making it easier to get sick and making you more susceptible to various infections.
It doesn’t help that people who are stressed often sleep poorly and might not have a healthy diet— both of which can also contribute to physical and mental illness, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Your gut health is out of whack.
It might make it hard to digest.
Gut health, bacteria, and probiotics have all become a hot topic of conversation in health news, and for good reason — gastrointestinal upset is a common symptom of stress.
According to the Canadian Society of Intestinal Research, studies have found that stressful life events are linked with digestive conditions including inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and gastroesophageal reflux disease.
Anisman said that when our gut bacteria is out of balance, it can activate other systems in ways we don’t want it to, thus leading to illness.
“There is a series of illnesses which may be secondary to things that are happening in the gut, which then affects the immune system that either facilitate or hinder viral or bacterial illnesses,” he said.
So don’t count out stress when it comes to your gut health, it can have just as much of an effect as diet and exercise.
You’re coping in unhealthy ways.
Unhealthy coping mechanisms are just a quick fix.
One thing that Morin, Okeke-Igbokwe, and Anisman all emphasized is the importance of healthy coping mechanisms. Finding healthy stress management systems will make it easier to handle stressful life events, also helping you to avoid additional health issues. On the other hand, if you already find yourself using unhealthy coping strategies for short-term relief — think drinking for relaxation or eating for comfort — know that they could lead to more serious, long-term problems.
“Be aware of the strategies that you might assume help but don’t actually reduce your stress,” Morin said. “Mindlessly scrolling through social media or venting your problems to others tend to backfire and make stress worse.”
Morin suggests finding things that rejuvenate you — maybe visiting with friends, spending time in nature, doing yoga, reading — and making time for them. Your health will thank you.
Learn more on INSIDER