How extreme stress affects your health
Stress doesn’t come the same way twice: It’s that fluttering anxiety in your stomach before you enter a dinner party you really didn’t want to go to. It’s that heaviness in your chest as you await the results of a medical test. It’s that bubbling up in your throat as your to-do list gets longer and longer. And it’s even the frazzled, shortness of breath just before a total anxiety meltdown.
The point is, you know each of these situations better than you’d like to. But no matter which kind you’re most acquainted with, one thing rings true: It’s not good for your body, your soul, or your brain. Recent research in British Medical Journal Open finds experiencing extreme stress (such as a divorce, illness, or job loss) increases your risk of Alzheimer’s by 21 percent and any other dementia by 15 percent, bringing truth to the old adage: It’s all in your head.
Although the typical stressors for human beings have long evolved from bears and wolves to finances and relationships, the human body has yet to catch up. When you see your bank account near the red zone, for example, you activate your body’s sympathetic nervous system, or fight-or-flight response. Your heart starts beating faster, cortisol rushes through your body, and oxygen gets pumped to your brain to optimize you for the fight ahead. Except there is no fight—only a frantic run to the ATM. And this happens every time it’s activated. And as research shows, using up all those resources in chronic stress can be taxing on the entire body. Take a closer look at what your body on stress looks like:
You don’t need to experience “extreme” stress in order to see a change in your memory. New research in the Journal of Neuroscience discovered a link between high levels of the stress hormone cortisol and short-term memory loss in aging adults.
Sudden stress might cause you to become temporarily pale after redirecting blood from your face to muscles that might need it. But constant low-grade stress over time can cause your skin to age faster; stir up rashes, rosacea, and psoriasis thanks to a histamine release; and increase oil production (read: acne).
Both chronic stress and repeated traumatic incidents (called acute stress by doctors) lead to inflammation in the coronary arties, which are responsible for heart attacks. The constant uptick of the heartbeat in those with chronic stress also takes a toll on the heart’s ability to pump blood, upping the risk for hypertension and stroke.
Quickened breath is a classic symptom of stress. But if you have asthma, studies show that stress can actually trigger an attack, while those with emphysema could have trouble getting enough oxygen in a stressful situation. Another dig: Stress predisposes you to inflammation, making asthma attacks more common.
Science confirms what women (and men!) everywhere know to be true: Stress fat is real. A study in Biological Psychiatry found women who experienced one or more stressful events the day before eating an indulgent meal burned fewer calories from the meal than those who weren’t stressed. The difference can amount to an extra 11 pounds per year.
Being in constant survival mode is exhausting, especially for your immune system, which can become suppressed due to chronic stress. It not only can keep your guard down against new disease, but also exacerbate existing conditions.
Sweet, Sweet Relief
Now that you know what stress is doing to your body, use the most researched stress reduction technique: meditation. It’s not all Buddha statues and incense. In fact, meditation is simply an umbrella term for practices like mindfulness, mantras, guided meditation, yoga, and deep breathing techniques, which research shows can do everything from reduce stress to promote weight loss and stave off diseases such as Alzheimer’s, cancer, and high blood pressure.
We know, we know. But you’re stressed now! Try Dr. Weil’s trusted 4:7:8 breathing exercise, what he calls a “natural tranquilizer” for your nervous system.