Stress is a huge problem in the United States.
The American Psychological Association reports that overall stress levels in Americans increased from 2014 to 2015, and that adults frequently say that stress has a negative impact on their mental and physical health. More problematically, most adults say that they don’t have the necessary tools to deal with stress.
Here’s why that’s so important: Stress can have extraordinary effects on your well being. For example…
Stress prevents you from getting restful sleep.
This is likely due to the release of cortisol, a hormone that prepares your body for fight or flight; it’s released when you’re stressed out, and it has an immediate effect on your energy levels. That’s a good thing if you’re running for your life, but it’s not such a good thing when you’re trying to get some shuteye.
The APA writes that nearly half of adults in their survey reported laying awake at night due to stress; sleep quality also appears to decrease as stress increases, as the cortisol may prevent the body from reaching the deep, restful sleep stages.
Stress prevents you from eating normally.
Harvard Health reports that stress affects food preferences. Many studies show that stress can make people (and many animals) prefer diets high in fat or sugar. This is likely due to the high cortisol and insulin levels that result from stress.
There’s also research that suggests that an appetite hormone called ghrelin may be released during stressful experiences, increasing the chance of overeating.
Stress makes you more susceptible to disease.
There’s a strong body of research to support the idea that stress weakens the immune system significantly. Once again, this is likely related to cortisol production; sustained episodes of stress may gradually weaken a body’s ability to quickly react to viruses and bacteria.
More distressingly, this may be a long-term effect; one study found that immune system response remained depressed for at least 18 months.
Stress might affect your memory.
Stress acts as a source of interference, preventing certain stages of memory processing. As a result, your short- and long-term memory suffers when you’re feeling stressed out.
However, stress hormones can actually improve your ability to store traumatic events. This is likely an evolutionary adaptation to help us remember how to react when our lives are threatened (but it’s not quite as helpful in the modern age).
So, what’s the best way to counter stress?
Meditation, exercise, and communication with friends & family seem to be the most effective treatments for stress. The Mayo Clinic recommends meditation as the fastest treatment for sudden stressful episodes. Guided meditations, such as the one below, can be very helpful if you find yourself stressed out and you can afford to take a few minutes to relax.
Avoiding stressors is also effective, of course, but ultimately, every person will eventually encounter the effects of stress. It’s literally unavoidable, but research shows that people with access to strong social support and proper coping habits are much less likely to experience severe effects.
Learning to manage stress—before it has an enormous physical and psychological effect—is incredibly important.