Everyone experiences stress. But not all types of mental strain are the same, especially when it comes to your health. By understanding stress and learning to spot its different forms, you can take proactive steps to protect your body and mind.
What Is Stress?
In medical terms, stress is anything that puts a demand on your body or immune system. That could be a hard workout or a hard day at work. But psychological stress—the type that stems from emotional life events—is the kind research has linked to some serious health problems, including an increased risk for heart disease and depression.
Chronic Stress Versus Acute Stress
Not all forms of psychological stress are unhealthy. Short-term or “acute” stress is brief and has a specific end point. Maybe you’re late for a meeting and fighting your way through traffic, or you’re nervous about a public speaking engagement. Everyone experiences those types of stress now and then, and they’re often harmless. In fact, some research suggests a little stress can temporarily sharpen your focus and thinking. On the contrary, long-term or “chronic” stress is a type that lasts for weeks or months and has no hard end date. Some examples: caring for a sick loved one, marriage problems, or unemployment. While both acute and chronic stress can create some of the same types of hormonal reactions in your body, experts say the continuous burden of chronic stress is the one you have to watch out for.
In the short term, stress triggers your body’s fight-or-flight response. Depending on how much stress you feel, your heart rate and breathing may speed up, your mouth may become dry, and you may feel tension in your arms, back, or shoulders. If your stress persists for long periods, it can cause feelings of fatigue, an out of control appetite, headaches, problems sleeping, and irritability or restlessness.
There are several proven ways to protect yourself from chronic or long-term stress. Spending time in nature or “green spaces” lowers your body’s levels of inflammation-causing stress hormones, research shows. A weekly walk in a park or wooded trail may offset the effects of a stressful week. Yoga, meditation, and regular exercise may also counteract chronic stress. In addition to those lifestyle changes, some forms of psychological therapy can also help you tame persistent stress. If you feel like stress is a problem for you, having a chat with a therapist or counselor can also be helpful.
The bottom line: By recognizing the different types of stress and taking steps to repel the harmful kinds, you can safeguard yourself from stress’s ill effects.