It’s no secret that mental stress can take a toll on your health. In fact, it’s estimated that 75-90% of all doctor’s visits are related to stress.1 Yet chronic stress has become so common today that its impact is often overlooked. But there is hope. By assessing your stress levels regularly, you can head off stress before it harms your health. In this article, we’ll cover how mental stress affects your health and how to track your stress levels. We’ll then offer helpful tips for how to manage your stress better.
What is mental stress?
We’ve all felt the effects of stress. It influences how we think, feel, and behave. And if it goes on for too long, it can impact our physical health.
According to the World Health Organization, “Stress can be defined as a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation.”1
Stress often arises when we encounter challenges in life, whether they’re perceived as positive or negative.
Some of the most common causes of mental stress include:
- Getting married or divorced
- Having a baby
- Losing a loved one
- Starting a new job
- Getting laid off
- Financial problems
- Relationship conflicts
- Having a serious illness
- Natural disasters
- Facing discrimination
Stress can make you feel overwhelmed, frustrated, nervous, or feel like your life is out of your control. If more than one challenge is going on at the same time, this only increases worry and anxiety.
And in our fast-paced world, even normal day-to-day living can trigger stress. Between work deadlines, traffic, and overloaded schedules, stress is everywhere.
What mental stress does to your body
Stress triggers your body’s sympathetic nervous system, or your “fight or flight” response. This floods your bloodstream with a cocktail of stress hormones such as cortisol and noradrenaline. Your breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure all shoot up, and your muscles tense. Essentially your body prepares to fight for its life or run for the hills.
This response came in handy when our ancestors were faced with dangerous threats such as predators. But today, our stressors are often less dramatic. Yet they’re never-ending. Between busy work schedules, bills, and family responsibilities, stress comes at us from all directions.
In small doses, stress can be a good thing, improving your focus or giving you a shot of energy to complete projects. But you’re not meant to live in emergency mode forever. Ideally, once the stressor passes, your body settles down and returns to a relaxed parasympathetic state.
Yet due to modern life, many live in a state of near-constant stress. And when stress lingers for too long, it can cause your body to get stuck in fight-or-flight mode. Over time, this can wear away at your physical and mental health.
How mental stress impacts health
As mentioned, stress elevates cortisol, your body’s main stress hormone. This can create a cascade of other hormonal imbalances, which can disrupt nearly all bodily systems.
For example, high cortisol levels increase insulin resistance, putting you at risk of diabetes.
Stress also weakens your immune system, making you more vulnerable to viral infections. In fact, one study found that people with high levels of stress are two times more likely to catch a cold than those with less stress.3
Stress affects your digestive system too, by altering the production of stomach acid. This can increase your risk of gastritis, stomach ulcers, and ulcerative colitis.1
People who are chronically stressed are also more likely to turn to unhealthy habits to cope with stress. This includes drinking, using recreational drugs, gambling, or excessive shopping.
Why it’s important to be aware of your mental stress levels
Chronic stress may be common, but it can have disastrous effects on your health. Long-term stress increases your risk of mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety.
Stress also plays a role in many other chronic conditions, such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and high blood pressure. Chronic stress can even worsen the health conditions you already have.
The trouble is that stress has become so commonplace in our culture. So much so, that many people don’t even realize that they’re stressed out.
This is unfortunate, as getting your stress in check is a crucial part of preventing chronic illness. And it’s the first step toward settling down your stress response is awareness.
Building awareness of your stress response helps you understand what triggers set you off. But it also helps you pinpoint which coping strategies ease your stress the best.
How to measure mental stress
Measuring stress may seem subjective, as everyone’s experience of stress is unique. However, there are a few ways to gain clarity on your stress level.
Mental stress tests
There are a variety of stress quizzes and questionnaires available online. (You can find an example of a mental stress test here.) These tools are a good starting point to examine your stress levels. That said, because they’re self-reports, their accuracy is questionable.
Cardiac health trackers
Stress affects your heart in a profound way. It speeds up your heart rate and causes your blood pressure to spike. However, once the stressor has passed, these vitals typically return to their baseline.
Heart rate variability (HRV) is another measurement that can help assess your stress levels. HRV refers to the variations in time between each successive heartbeat. These beat-to-beat changes in the heart’s rhythm reflect the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
In general, people with low HRV tend to have higher stress levels, while those with high HRV are more relaxed and resilient to stress.
In medical settings, heart rate variability is measured with an electrocardiogram (EKG). But there are also a variety of devices that can measure your HRV from home, such as chest bands and fitness trackers.
Galvanic skin response
Galvanic skin response (GSR) measures skin conductance. This can be used to determine stress levels because when we encounter an emotionally arousing stimulus, the skin becomes a better conductor of electricity.4
The traditional method of measuring GSR is with finger electrodes attached to a device that sends a weak electrical current across the skin. Modern versions of this technology include wearable sensors integrated into smart watches & fitness trackers, and electrodermal screening devices such as the ZYTO Hand Cradle.
Transdermal optical imaging
Transdermal optical imaging (TOI) is a new technology that uses a digital camera to detect blood flow changes in the face. These facial blood flow changes are then used to measure your heart rate, blood pressure, HRV, and even your mental stress levels.
This is because your facial blood flow patterns change depending on your emotional state and stress level. For example, in one study when subjects encountered a bitter taste, it decreased blood flow in the nose.5 However, pleasant tastes resulted in an increase in blood flow to the eyelids.
As mentioned, HRV is also a reliable indicator of stress that can be used to determine relative stress level. TOI is able to determine mental stress levels by comparing a large sample size of traditional heart rate measurements to TOI signal results. These values are then converted into a stress index with 5 levels.6
TOI’s accuracy is proven to be comparable to medical devices such as EKG.6 And since the technology can be done remotely, TOI offers an easy, non-invasive way to assess mental stress.
How to improve your mental health
Adjusting your lifestyle habits can help trigger the relaxation response to help you get a handle on stress.
Here are a few coping strategies to help you manage stress.
No matter what stressors you’re facing, it’s always easier with support. So stay connected and share your worries with family and friends. Or consider joining a support group. The more support you feel, the better you’ll be able to bounce back when stress rears its head.
Physical activity boosts your mood by triggering the release of endorphins, your body’s “feel-good” chemicals. Exercise also helps you get out of your head and into your body, taking a breather from your daily worries.
Try relaxation techniques
Meditation, yoga, breathing exercises, and progressive muscle relaxation all have powerful effects on the nervous system. These methods help you stay present and slow down your breathing to put you in a calm, parasympathetic state. So try setting aside time for daily relaxation. Even 10-15 minutes a day can help train your body to relax.
What you eat affects how you feel. For example, diets high in sugar can raise cortisol and make you more vulnerable to stress.7 People who eat processed food are more prone to high levels of stress too.8
In contrast, diets high in fruits and vegetables are linked with lower stress levels.9 So focus on eating wholesome, nutritious foods such as fruits, veggies, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
Get enough sleep
Stress and sleep have a bidirectional relationship, meaning one affects the other. Lack of sleep can elevate your cortisol levels.10 Poor sleep can also reduce the time spent in REM or deep sleep, which helps you process emotions from the day.
So if you want to ease stress, commit to getting 7-9 hours of sleep every night. If sleep is a struggle, practicing good sleep hygiene may help. Sticking to a consistent sleep schedule and avoiding electronics an hour before bed are good places to start. And having a relaxing bedtime ritual may help you enter sleep more peacefully.
Mental stress can have a huge impact on your physical and mental health. High levels of stress put you at increased risk for a variety of chronic illnesses. Keeping tabs on your stress levels can help you make improvements before disease sets in. Taking a stress assessment can serve as a good starting point. From there, committing to healthy lifestyle habits such as exercise, sleep, and daily relaxation can help you keep your stress in check.
About Mindy Palmer
Mindy Palmer is a wellness writer and certified holistic health coach. She enjoys inspiring others to live healthier lives by creating informative content for leading-edge health and wellness brands.
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