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.
The Ongoing Impact
While anxiety and depression are problematic at any stage in life, new research indicates that the conditions can have a significantly detrimental impact on overall well-being as we age. Initial research conducted via a survey designed by the World Health Organization showed that depression and anxiety have the most impact on well-being among older adults, more so even than physical health, which seemed to have little to no impact on overall satisfaction with life. While additional research using patient reported data and electronic clinical outcome assessments (eCOA) is being done to more fully assess the affect that mental health has on overall well-being as we age, the fact remains that stress is not good for our mental health.
Doctors and scientists believe that in addition to the physical effects of stress hormones, thought patterns are a major contributor to anxiety and depression when it comes to stress. In other words, the thought patterns created by stress — feelings that stress is negative, that you don’t have the capacity to deal with the stress, nervousness, helplessness, etc. — increase the possibility of anxiety and depression when left unchecked.
For that reason, doctors recommend finding health ways of dealing with stress, including exercise, making time for yourself and your hobbies, eating a healthy diet, and putting a priority on your relationships. If you stress is becoming unmanageable, talk with your health care provider about other treatment options.
Stress is unavoidable, but it doesn’t have to take over your life and affect your long-term health. Learn to recognize the signs of too much stress, and stay healthy and strong for years to come.