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.
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
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:
- 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
- Heart trouble and heart attack
- 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
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
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 improves your immune system.
Always remember that if your symptoms continue or get worse, you should
see your doctor.
Schedule a visit
If you’re navigating a cancer diagnosis and have questions about
how you can stay safe over the holidays, talk to your primary care provider
or oncologist. Use our
provider directory or search for one in your area.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical
care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.