Long-term stress and your health

Chronic stress can wreak havoc on both your mental and physical health. It wears down your body’s natural defenses, leaving you exhausted and exposed to illness. If you’ve been dealing with stress for longer than you can remember – either due to the pandemic or other life issues – you may be starting to see the impact on your body, your immunity and your overall resilience.

Dr. Olga Calof, endocrinologist at Providence Medical Institute, San Pedro Primary Care, shares her insight on the effects of stress on your health. Read her perspective.

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Here to help you feel your best

By: Dr. Olga Calof

As I sit and reflect on the last day of this most unusual summer, I realize that COVID-19 is the great equalizer. Like many, I heard the governor give the grim news that fateful Friday, March 13, while picking up my daughter from outdoor science school. I truly believed that the stay-at-home orders would last no more than two weeks. Then, we would all be back to our normal, hectic lives, and it would all be a nice vacation. Now, several months later, I am writing on the effects of chronic stress on our health. 

Like many, I spent the first few weeks in a bewildered state of mind. My family and I ate at home while glued to the news, had some family and social media time, caught up on our shows, and stood in lines for much coveted toilet paper. 

Stress, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is: 1. A state of mental tension and worry caused by problems in your life, work, etc.; 2. Something that causes strong feelings of worry or anxiety. 

As an endocrinologist, I happen to be intimately acquainted with the hormones that can cause stress-related symptoms. Stress-related symptoms are body responses that produce changes you can feel physically, such as a racing heart, tremors, and the stomach-turning feeling of dread.

The best-known example of rapid stress hormone release is referred to as the “fight or flight” reaction. This happens when you feel threatened internally or externally. In this scenario, the stress response causes your body to release stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline (also known as epinephrine), into the bloodstream. These hormones were helpful when humans lived in caves; those with the best fight or flight responses were able to fend off predators and survive to pass on their genes.

When released, rapid stress hormones feed every cell in the body, which in turn fuel the brain and muscles to increase alertness, concentration and strength. They increase heart rate and blood pressure for the rapid response needed to free you from danger. After you’ve dealt with the short-term stress, these hormones leave as quickly as they came, and we return to our normal state. But in some cases, these hormones do not subside, and hang around much longer than necessary. Our bodies and minds do not have time to recover. 

How stress threatens your physical and mental health

Having chronic stress and stress hormones can bring on mental and physical diseases and affect every part of our body. There are many signs and effects of excessive stress on the body, including:

  • Headaches
  • Body aches
  • Stomach pains and digestive problems
  • Increased or decreased appetite
  • High blood pressure
  • High sugar levels
  • Insomnia (trouble sleeping at night) or too much sleeping
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Heart trouble and heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Weakened immune system (especially relevant now)
  • Weight gain
  • Irregular periods
  • Decreased libido (sex drive)

Different types of stress

Not all stress is the same. Acute stress is short-term while chronic stress is long-term. Examples of acute stress would be any stress you suffer from for a short period of time -- like a car cutting you off on the freeway, an argument with your spouse, or a scary noise outside your home.

But if you're a bus driver and you get stuck in numerous traffic jams every day, you're in a bad relationship and you argue with your spouse constantly, you work for a toxic boss or you live in a high-crime neighborhood where break-ins are relatively common, your stress may be chronic.

Your body is well designed to recover quickly from short-term stress. That's how many mental health experts define resilience: How quickly you recover from an acute episode of stress. Your blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate and levels of muscle tension may skyrocket for a short while. If you're young (and/or) healthy and in good shape, these markers of stress quickly return back to their normal levels.

Our bodies aren’t as good at handling chronic stress, however. Over time, chronic stress gradually increases your resting heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate and levels of muscle tension so the body has to work even harder when it's at rest to keep you functioning normally.

A new time, a new approach to your health

I have to admit, I have changed the way I talk with my patients. We are all in the same boat, we are all facing the same stressors, the same pandemic. I have seen much more weight gain, critically elevated blood sugars and blood pressures in many patients. At the same time, I am seeing many new patients who have not been to the doctor in years, who are finally ready to gain control of their health. 

When I speak with my patients, I find we find we have a lot in common. We realize we cannot control the outside forces, but we can control our response to the pandemic and our health. So, we look internally. We aim to make small but tangible changes in our lifestyles. These small changes can make incremental improvements in overall health. 

Now, we don’t just talk about sugar or blood pressure. Instead, we’ll talk about family, worries and long-term health goals. Together, we’ll look beyond the pandemic and use this time as a springboard to a healthier lifestyle. 

I think it’s important to share how I’ve coped with stress. I tell them I have found time to learn to knit, learn to cook, and make my mother’s favorite recipes. I am reading and even picked up watercolor painting. I tell them I have three kids in online school. 

We also talk about ways to deal with the stress. Yoga and meditation are wonderful, evidence-based tools that can help manage stress and anxiety. Regular practice helps tame our minds so we can look inward to control our body’s responses to stress. Amazingly, we can teach our bodies to tame some of the hormones that are responsible for chronic stress.    

We are no longer doctor and patient but have morphed into a team: humans vs. COVID-19.

Take control of stress levels

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to control your stress levels and make healthy choices – even more than yoga and meditation. Regular, moderate exercise improves thought processes and mood. Other strategies include getting a good night’s sleep. 

Humans are also social animals and being isolated has become a stressor to many. Seek emotional support from family and friends (via safely distanced video calls). You can also reduce the long-term effects of chronic stress by eating a healthy diet, most commonly recommended are the Mediterranean, DASH, and plant-based diets. Avoid smoking and drinking too much alcohol as it can put additional stress on your organs.

And finally, find something to laugh about every day—watch comedies, tell silly jokes or find silly baby animal videos on social media. Laughter releases the same endorphins as exercise, lowers your cortisol levels and helps improve your immune system.

Always remember that if your symptoms continue or get worse, you should see your doctor.

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

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