Everyone suffers from stress; some people more than others. Some stress is natural, and can actually be beneficial. But when stress is prolonged and excessive, it can cause mental and physical problems.
If you take action to manage your stress as soon as you notice it’s becoming a problem, you can prevent it from causing serious damage. Unfortunately, most people suffer with stress for long periods of time, to the point where it becomes a chronic condition. This type of prolonged stress can cause a number of health problems and even lead to long-term disorders.
Effects of Prolonged Stress on Health
Chronic stress — stress that is felt every day for a long period of time — not only takes a toll on one’s emotional state and mental functioning, but causes physical problems as well. Physical symptoms of stress can include:
- High blood pressure
- Weakened immune system
- Cardiovascular disease
- Headaches and migraines
- Muscle pain and tension (especially in the neck)
Over time, these physical symptoms can lead to even greater problems, such as kidney failure in the case of high blood pressure and heart attack in the case of cardiovascular disease.
Another physical side effect of stress is increased cortisol levels. Cortisol is a steroid hormone that the body produces in response to stress. Over time, chronically high cortisol levels can cause all of the symptoms mentioned above, as well as weight gain (especially in the abdominal area), diabetes and hypothyroidism.
The most common mental effects of chronic stress include depression and anxiety. However, anxiety can also be a cause of chronic stress. If you’re already suffering with an anxiety disorder, it can exacerbate the tension and stress you experience in day-to-day life.
Diet and Chronic Stress
A focus on prevention is the best way to avoid the mental and physical damage associated with chronic or prolonged stress. However, this isn’t as simple as it sounds.
There are a number of kinds of stress that are nearly impossible to prevent. For example, tension in the workplace or among family members is often inevitable. But how you deal with these stressors will determine how they affect your overall well-being in the long run.
Eating a proper diet is the simplest and most reliable way to help alleviate stress. Currently, the standard western diet is lacking in the vitamins, minerals and amino acids that the body needs to combat the damage of prolonged stress. For example, anxiety, irritability, and fatigue can all be symptoms of a deficiency in calcium, magnesium, or B vitamins.
Highly processed foods contain excess sugar, salt and unhealthy fats rather than these vital nutrients, exacerbating the effects of the stress that is all too common in day-to-day life.
Changing your diet to include nutrient-rich foods can replenish the lost nutrients the body so desperately needs. We recommend adding more of the following to your diet:
- spinach and other leafy green vegetables
Other Ways to Deal with Prolonged Stress
Along with a healthy diet, getting enough sleep is crucial in order for your body to repair itself and maintain the immune system, as well as to give the mind a chance to rest and recover from stress.
Exercise is also an excellent way to relieve the symptoms of stress. Exercise releases endorphins, which are not only the body’s natural painkillers, but also the reset button for your brain chemistry. Regular exercise can help maintain normal levels of stress-relieving neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. Recent studies have indicated that regular exercise is more effective than medication in alleviating depression.
Natural herbal remedies such as Ashwagandha and passion flower (not to mention countless others!) can also have a calming effect on the body. Ashwagandha acts as an overall tonic for the body by protecting the immune system, stabilizing blood sugar and reducing the degeneration of brain cells, among other things. And passion flower has been likened to medications such as valium because of its calming and anxiety-relieving properties.
The Bottom Line about Prolonged Stress
If you know that stress is a problem for you, especially if it has been prolonged, you should take steps right now to get your stress under control, before it becomes an issue of your health.
Stress is unavoidable in the fast-paced lives we lead today. Financial, familial and career-related stress abound. It can be easy to fall into the trap of feeling that there’s no time in the day to take care of you with so many other pressing concerns, but that mentality is often what gets people into trouble in the long run. It is important to take time to check in with yourself throughout your busy day, and to tend to your own needs as well as the needs of those in your life. An enjoyable exercise regimen, a wholesome diet, a good night’s sleep, even a bubble bath and a good book, are all great ways to ensure that you’re treating yourself with the respect you deserve.