Stress: Causes, Effects, and 5 Ways to Beat It

by Michael F. Roizen, MD, Chief Medical Officer

You likely know two major biology lessons about stress:

1. Stress is the greatest ager.

The greatest threat to your health and wealth is your stressful response to an event. Plain and simple.

High levels of stress are a major cause of bad health effects—ranging from overeating and obesity to high blood pressure, fatigue, anxiety, and the shrinking of your brain’s memory center.

Feeling stressed also leads to a weakening of the immune system, which is the root of a whole host of other problems.

Your perception of stress can increase your risk of heart and artery problems like stroke and kidney failure. It can also increase your risk of cancer and infections as it impedes your immune system, and lead to cognitive dysfunction by knocking out connections in the brain.

2. Flight, fight, or freeze.

Your body has been designed—through a primal need to survive—to instantly evaluate a stressor and then decide which of three ways you’re going to engage with it: Do you take flight, freeze (play dead), or stay and fight?

Evolutionarily and biologically, this instinctual choice makes a lot of sense. Way back when we gathered around the campfire, grilling up the scrumptious catch of the day, you had to react when the tables were turned and some beast wanted to make you its catch of the day.

So when a four-legged beast growled, grunted, stalked, and then lunged forward for its in‑the- wild appetizer, you had to decide whether you’d be better off hauling butt or kicking butt or playing dead. Flight or fight or freeze. So stress isn’t the event, it is our reaction to the event.

Your body, even back then, knew what it needed to do. Your heart rate increased to pump blood through your body to fuel your muscles, and hormones surged to give you a rush of energy, strength, and chutzpah to do whatever it took to survive.

If you survived, so did the species. But that biologic response honed through evolution makes stress a major cause of aging, disease, and medical and societal costs.

There’s no one-size-fits-all pill that will melt your stress away. You can’t have your stress surgically removed. And you can’t really go on an anti-stress diet (win seven mother‑in‑law arguments in two weeks!).

Instead, stress—at least the way you personally experience it—and thus stress management involves quite a bit of art in addition to the science. That’s because we all perceive events in different ways.

Some people thrive on pressure and aren’t really bothered by things that would send other people through the roof. Some people go bonkers if the traffic light takes five extra seconds to turn green.

Those personality and perception differences (that is, differences in how you perceive the event, and, if it causes you stress, how long the stress lasts) make it necessary for you to manage your stress.

This is what we do know: Stress is a major source of health problems. The biggest causes of stress are finances and relationships, followed by health, sadness, and work pressure.

Very powerful and very common sources of stress are relationship issues with family, friends, and colleagues. They may not always be a big deal in any given moment but, if not dealt with, can rapidly accumulate and drain your mental, emotional, and physical energy.

One last thing to emphasize: Stress sometimes gets a negative rap—it’s talked about as something that you always want to eliminate.

But stress is sort of like fat. Yes, you want some (healthy fat choices please, as in salmon, walnuts, avocados, and extra virgin olive oil), but you don’t want a lot of it. You need some fat in your body for brain function, energy, and other purposes.

In the same way, you also need some stress. If you didn’t have some concern about finances, you wouldn’t feel the need to protect yourself (building that emergency stash, buying life insurance) until it was too late. Stress actually can help you make smarter decisions and guard your body, your life, and your assets.

So our goal isn’t to shed stress entirely. It’s to figure out which stressors are really damaging your health, address them, then come up with strategies that make everyday stress feel like a normal part of your life—not an “Oh, woe is me” part of your life.

Once you become aware of how stress really affects you and how you respond, you can develop a strategy for actively dealing with that stressor and its consequences. So awareness is the first step, developing a plan is the second, and the third is practicing that plan enough that it becomes automatic for you.

When you reach that uber-level of stress management—especially when it comes to getting your finances in order or feeling more in control of your relationships—the effect is huge. You’re happier, healthier, and more productive, and everything seems to fall into place.

What Your Body Does When You’re Stressed

While I don’t think you need to know every piece of anatomy in order to be motivated to make and to sustain lifestyle changes, I do believe that having some understanding about how the body works gives you a little more power to control it. (The same can be said for finances, right? Once you understand how stocks, options, and other investments work, they’re not so scary, and you can make smart decisions, rather than just ignoring those words and worlds because you don’t understand them.)

Here’s how the general process goes down:

-When faced with a stressor, your brain (via the hypothalamus at its base) releases CRH (corticotropin-releasing hormone). That hormone sends a message to the pituitary gland, which releases another hormone called ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) into your bloodstream.

-ACTH waves over to your adrenal glands to release cortisol (you may know this as the stress hormone) and starts the production of norepinephrine and epinephrine (you know this as adrenaline).

-Together, these chemicals trigger the processes that involve your heart and blood. Cortisol, for example, promotes an increase in sugar in your bloodstream to fuel your muscles.

-Now, that said, I can modify the science I’ve described to make it more accurate (and, unfortunately, make it more complex for a moment). Your body secretes slightly different mixes of chemicals and hormones that cause your different feelings in response to different stressful events, and your physical response correlates with the type of reaction to the stress, not just the intensity of your response.

-When the stress stops, the cortisol travels to the brain to stop the production of CRH—and the game of dominoes. When the stress stops, that’s what stops the cycle. You need that to happen because the overflooding of your system with all these hormones is what causes the health problems I mentioned above. Besides, the overabundance of stress hormones actually inhibits growth hormone, which you need to keep your brain sharp and your muscles strong, and to live a healthy life.
Yes, one of the biggest issues with stress is that it drains your mental battery even if you are not fully aware of it. Dealing with it is the only way to deal with the energy drain.

You need to become aware of what events trigger a response in you and what domino effect they trigger in you, and then prepare in advance so you can avoid the health (and, yes, financial) effects of responding with fight, flight, or freeze.

What You Can Do to Manage Stress

1. Practice healthy habits.

When you think of traditional stress-relief methods, they probably fall into one of two categories—healthy or unhealthy.

In the first category are things like massages or lavender-infused baths, both of which have benefits for your body and psyche. (Nothing like working out some muscular tension in your neck to help loosen things up.)

In the unhealthy category, there’s binge-watching TV and excessive video gaming, overeating, overdrinking, overspending. All of these will hurt your health in the long run, even if they do take away the short-term sting of stress. I, of course, don’t advocate unhealthy methods for stress management.

The best answer to stress is to be aware of your trigger points and your response... then plan and practice an automatic response.

During stressful times, we fall back on automatic habits—so you need healthy habits that become second nature. Examples would be taking a fixed number of deep breaths every time you get frustrated that you’re caught in traffic... or reaching for a bag of carrots every time you get frazzled and want the chips.

The more you turn learned response into automated habits, the more successful you will be, and the less events will age you. So the trick here is to spend some time developing an emergency plan—basically a stop-drop-and-roll for life.

2. Take spiritual and physical action.

Learn, master, and practice one of the common 12 stress management techniques—pick one that works for you.

Many programs are available on the internet, such as Cleveland Clinic’s validated and well-studied Stress Free Now Program, which uses deep breathing.

I know it’s easy to write off deep breathing as some kind of hocus-pocus... but there’s real science here.

Taking a deep breath through your nose triggers the release of nitric oxide, which has a calming effect and opens up your blood vessels. When your blood pressure rises in stressful situations, it’s because those arteries constrict, making it harder for blood to pass through. So when those arteries open up, your blood pressure lowers and you feel much calmer.

Thinking about how you really feel and understanding your feelings leads to that awareness of triggers and anticipation, which leads to learning how to neutralize the response, which then can lead to practice. That’s when the neutralizing response becomes so automatic that it’s like the “Chopsticks” you played after a year of piano practice. Tough the first time, so automatic the 80th that your neighbors could hum it.

3. Learn to say “NO.”

Start saying "no” to those things that rank low on your list of priorities. Say “no” to things that are less important so you have time to focus on the things that are very important: getting enough physical activity and sleep, consuming enough protein and water so that you feel naturally up (and can stay that way).

4. Add pets and plants to your home.

Two de-stressors to add to your home: pets and plants.

Green house plants have been shown to decrease infection rates in nursing homes and lower blood pressure.

People who get a pet after having a heart attack are less likely to have another heart attack, especially if they walk that pet.

In fact, just imagining that you have a pet and walking it can reduce your stress. Or get a chia pet sometime and carry it around. Extra bonus: You can even give your pet a trim and put some of the sprouts into your salads and sandwiches.

5. Nutty and seedy wins the race.

Speaking of chia, I recommend you add some chia seed to your diet. Chia—a harvested, unprocessed, nutty-tasting, nutrient-dense whole grain with omega-3 fatty acids—has among the highest antioxidant activity of any whole food, outperforming even fresh blueberries.

One study showed that 30 grams of chia seed taken with bread decreased the sharp blood sugar spike seen an hour after eating. Another study showed that chia lowers blood pressure and the risk of heart problems.

My recommendation: Twice a day, 30 minutes before eating, take a dose of about 20 grams of seeds. Alternatively, you can eat some nuts (6 walnut halves, 12 almonds, or 20 peanuts) or a small piece of dark chocolate. This slows down your stomach’s emptying so you feel fuller, eat less, and keep your blood sugar level from spiking as much.

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