6 Ways Stress Is Hurting Your Health—and What You Can Do About It

Kristen Domonell Fact Checked
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Do you remember the last time you went a week without feeling stressed out? Americans are a stressed population in general, but millennials, Gen Xers and women have it worst of all, according to the American Psychological Association. And all that stress is taking its toll in the form of myriad health problems, from heart troubles and sleepless nights to packing on unwanted pounds. 

It’s not just major life events, like a death in the family, moving or losing your job that can contribute to health problems. Even little nuisances you deal with day in and day out can start to affect your physical and emotional health over time, says clinical psychologist Patrick Raue, Ph.D.

“Research shows that the accumulation of day-to-day problems of living and minor stresses—as they accumulate and build up and become chronic—can be more harmful than big life events,” he says. “They tend to pile up and can take on a life of their own.” 

Need a reason to get your stress levels in check? Here are six ways it's messing with your health, plus stress management tips that can help.

Body and Mind: The Physical Symptoms of Stress

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1. Memory Problems

Always misplacing your keys or forgetting where you parked? Blame it on being constantly frazzled. Chronic stress affects spatial learning and memory, which is how you learn and remember how to navigate your surroundings, research shows.

2. Heart Disease

When you’re stressed out, the amygdala, which is the part of your brain responsible for reacting to fear, senses a threat and sends a signal to the hypothalamus, activating your fight or flight response. That reaction is helpful if you’re about to get hit by a car, but less so if the “threat” is your 9-to-5 desk job. Researchers have found that when the amygdala is chronically activated from stress, it increases your risk for cardiovascular disease later in life, regardless of other risks factors.

3. Migraines

Stress can be a headache, literally. But for people who suffer from migraines, the weekend after a big presentation might be even worse than the day of, according to a 2014 study in the journal Neurology. The researchers found that when people relaxed after a stressful event, they were more likely to get a migraine, especially in the six hours following their heightened stress. Why? Stress releases the hormone cortisol, which has been found to reduce pain, the researchers write. Without the increased cortisol, you may experience migraines more intensely.

4. Weight Gain

Cortisol strikes again. In one recent study in the journal Obesity, researchers measured cortisol levels in hair samples of more than 2,500 older adults. They found that waist circumference and body mass index (BMI) were higher in people with higher levels of cortisol. Another study found that women consumed more food—especially sweets—on the days they were stressed than when they weren’t. Let’s be real: who hasn’t stress eaten chocolate?

5. Decreased Exercise Motivation

Consider yourself lucky if you like to take your stress out on the pavement. For most people, stress impairs efforts to be physically active, according to a study in the journal Sports Medicine. After all, it’s easier to pour a glass of rosé than it is to jog around Green Lake. But even though it might seem like a catch-22, forcing yourself to get out and move can help you avoid stress, studies show.

6. Poor Sleep

You don’t need a study to tell you that a stressful day can lead to a stressful night of tossing and turning. And missing out on sleep can lead to a vicious cycle of being stressed out, not sleeping well, and then stressing out about how you aren’t sleeping. One study suggests that how you cope with stress may also be hurting your sleep. Using drugs or alcohol, distracting with TV or a movie or avoiding dealing with your stress at all are all linked with an increased insomnia risk, the researchers found.

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff: Learn to Handle Stress

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Whether it’s stress from work or the madness that is the Seattle housing market, learning to deal with it can have a positive impact on your health. The first step? Identifying that you’re stressed out in the first place, says Raue.

“If you’re feeling sad or anxious or overwhelmed, think of that as a red flag that there’s a problem or a stress that’s existing and you might be feeling stuck with that,” he says. “If you can look at that like a challenge or a cue to action, that can help you  identify what in the situation is under your control.”

Some things, like the price of a two bedroom house in Ballard, can’t be controlled. Other things, like tackling a big project at work, can be. Once you’ve identified what’s stressing you out, try setting goals you can meet, says Raue. If you’re freaking out about what needs to get done at the office, divide it into smaller, more manageable tasks, he suggests.  

It also can be helpful to write out a step-by-step plan about what you will do first, when you will start and what you want to do next, says Raue.

“As you are following through with your plan, take stock of how the process is going. Appreciate your efforts if you have met your goals,” he says. “But if obstacles or difficulties come up, think of this as new information about the problem you are facing and then revise your plan.”     

If you find you’re unable to work through your stress with these simple strategies, talking with a professional, like a psychologist or clinical social worker, is a great way to learn. Raue often recommends an approach called problem-solving therapy to his patients who need help reframing their problems and managing stress more effectively.