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Signs and Symptoms of Unhealthy High Stress Levels

Author:   Peter Sedesse MD

Stress has a purpose in our lives

Stress is a natural occurrence in all types of creatures. At its´most basic, stress is our brains way of giving us the energy and desire to react to a negative situation. In the wild, this is known as fight or flight. Health problems related to stress occur when neither option is viable. Animals in the wild who are trapped and cannot flee will suffer physical damage from stress. In human beings, it is even worse because there are society expectations and family commitments that make neither fight nor flight viable options. A common example is a person who hates their boss and job, but cannot quit the job because of financial obligations. The body produces stress to tell the person they should leave the situation, but their obligations prevent them from doing it, so the stress begins to harm that person physically.

Signs and symptoms that stress is becoming unhealthy

Although you may not believe it, short-term stress is helpful and useful to us. It tells us that something in our lives needs action. Stress can quickly become a negative thing though. Some early signs that we are not dealing correctly with our stress include sleep problems, which leads to fatigue and irritability. As the unresolved stress continues, this will lead to depression, loss of energy, overeating or undereating. Once it gets to this point, stress can become a cycle where some of the symptoms of the stress actually prevent a person from quickly and correctly dealing with the cause of the stress.

Harmful physical effects of stress

Many people do not realize it, but stress is more than just in our thoughts. Stress causes many hormones and chemicals to be produced throughout the body. In the short term, these chemicals are useful to use for dealing with the stress. For instance, an increased heart rate allows more oxygen to be available to muscles. Chemicals are released that cause more energy to be released to cells. For short amounts of time, these things are harmless, but if the stress continues, cardiovascular disease, heart attacks and strokes can occur from high blood pressure and the stress can even increase the health risks of people with diabetes. The prolonged effects of high stress levels on the gastrointestinal tract can cause ulcers and intestinal diseases as well as affect nutrient absorption. Stress also can increase the chances of developing certain types of cancer and even increases the rate at which our body ages.

Stress levels and the immune system

Prolonged stress greatly decreases the ability of the body to fight off disease. Stress, itself, decreases the immune response, but also if the stress has been occurring for a long amount of time, the effects of sleep loss and malnutrition can also effect the immune system. People under stress are much more likely to fall victim to things like the common cold, skin rashes and stomach infections. Viruses and parasites that are repressed and dormant normally, suddenly are able to fend off the immune system and cause health issues such as genital herpes or cold sores.

Behavior changes from stress

People who are under constant stress may develop behavior habits to cope with the stress. This includes things like alcohol or drug abuse or marital infidelity and risky sexual behavior. These activities also can cause a negative cycle where they amplify the reason for the original high stress. For example, drug use affecting job performance.

Treatments for high stress levels

With all the negative health risks of stress, it is important to have not only a way to prevent unnecessary stress, but also to treat or cope with stress you cannot prevent. Every person is an individual an unique in how the deal with stress. There are some common traits among people who respond well to stress. One of the most important treatments of stress is socialization. People who have a group of trusted friends and family are more likely to successfully deal with a stressful situation quickly. Planning ahead is also useful to avoid stress or deal with it quickly. Remember, stress is caused when we cannot fight or flee, like a rabbit trapped in a box. The more financial planning you do, the more likely it is you will have already developed an escape mechanism and not get trapped to begin with. The other option is to understand when you just have to take your medicine and confront the situation directly. There are ways to minimize the effects of stress such as exercise, but in the end, stress only is removed when you either successfully flee the situation, or confront the situation directly. Stress only occurs when you do neither.

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