Headaches. High blood pressure. Upset stomach. Tension. Chest pains. The list of physical symptoms related to stress is long, and most of us have experienced one or more of them when we’re under a great deal of pressure. In fact, there has been a great deal of research about the long-term physical effects of stress, and the news isn’t good. Ongoing stress is proven to be a contributor to heart disease and other cardiovascular conditions, and can make it more difficult to manage other chronic conditions, including obesity and diabetes.
Yet for all of the talk about the long-term physical effects of stress, there hasn’t been quite as much attention on the emotional effect of ongoing stress. Researchers have determined, though, that your emotional well-being is just as affected by stress as your physical health, with stress being a common factor in the development and management of anxiety and depression.
Stress and Mental Health
Anyone who has ever experienced stress (and who hasn’t?) knows that stress can affect you emotionally just as much as physically. Stress can make you feel anxious, irritable, or even sad. You might lash out at people for seemingly no reason, for instance, because you feel overwhelmed, or you might cry from frustration. These are normal reactions, and in the short term, aren’t likely to have any lasting impact on your mental well-being.
When stress is ongoing, though, or you have a tendency to be more high-strung or have a more aggressive personality (otherwise known as “Type A”) that tends to respond to stress more easily, you do have an elevated risk of not only physical ailments, but also of developing ongoing depression and anxiety. And that stress doesn’t always have to be triggered by a negative occurrence like a job loss or divorce. Happy events, like weddings and graduations, can also lead to an episode of depression.
The cause, researchers have found, is in our hormones. When faced with a stressor, the body produces the so-called “stress hormone” cortisol, as well as adrenaline, which creates the “fight or flight” response that we’ve all experienced. This is important, because while we might not be trying to escape giant predators as we did thousands of years ago, the fight or flight response allows us to respond to danger when necessary. Only today, the dangers aren’t saber-toothed tigers and wooly mammoths, but rather angry bosses, traffic, and overdue bills. And while your stress hormone production would have slowed down once you safely made it back to the cave without being eaten, the stressors of modern life don’t always disappear once you’re out of sight.