The Effects of Stress and Our Health


Stress and Our Health

  • Insomnia

  • Weight Gain

  • Hypertension and Heart Disease

Americans are at serious risk of developing stress-related illnesses. Because it is not enough to know that stress can cause illness, this article is going to take a much closer look at the actual physiology of certain diseases, some of which can be prevented by taking action today.

One definition of stress is attempting to change something over which you have no control. Can you control the weather? Traffic? Whether or not your child gets sick? Can you control the price of gas? Congress? The behavior of other people, especially in the workplace?

Before going any further in this article, write down in your notebook the things that you normally stress about. Then place a star or X to indicate whether or not you can control the event. How much does it bother you on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 bothering you the least.





It's raining




Rent overdue




Car out of gas




Traffic – rush hour




Bill collectors calling

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Relaxation course?




Homework not done





The idea is to begin noticing what events in your life bother you and simply noticing whether you have some kind of control over the events. This is a good exercise to do for about a week. This will give you a better idea of what kind of things are stressful to you and whether or not you can do something about the stress to control it.

For the stressful situations that you are unable to control, you will need to find ways to reduce how you respond to stress. While you may not be able to control the stressor, you can learn to control your reaction to it, and this is the first step to managing your overall stress levels.

Learning a variety of methods of relaxation can not only immediately improve the quality of your life, but you can also prevent the onset of a number of debilitating diseases with regular relaxation practice.

Who can benefit? Absolutely everyone.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinics at the University of Massachusetts, says that if you are breathing, your quality of life can be improved using stress reductions methods.

This article will focus on some of the more common issues associated with stress. The reason for this is because they are so common, too many people believe it to be normal, or even expected. This is not the case. Even issues as minor as slowly increasing weight gain or insomnia can be indicators that you are not handling the stress in your life very well.

The really insidious factor about stress is that its effects are cumulative. The more stress you experience, the less your body is able to handle it.

Many young people believe they are invincible. They burn the candle at both ends, party hard, study hard, work hard, and when they have to, they give up sleeping regular hours in order to fit everything in. They hear their parents and grandparents say, "Enjoy it now, because when you get older, it gets harder to recover."

That is true. What isn't true, is that young people suffer no ill effects from such stressful activities. Hospitals are seeing people coming in with heart disease, hypertension, and pre-diabetic syndromes at younger and younger ages. Almost once a week a story hits the newswires about a young person dying of a heart attack.

Instead of gambling with your health, establish good, healthy relaxation techniques that will not only improve your long-term health, but will help you enjoy a far greater quality of life today.

It's okay to work hard, as long as you know how to relax well and deeply, keeping everything in balance.

Let's look at how easy it is for our life to go out of balance.


One of the first signs of chronic stress is the inability to sleep well. Children as young as 2 years old demonstrate an inability to sleep well when they live in a stressful environment. Their sleep is interrupted by nightmares, or even night-frights.

One in three people suffer from insomnia. One in five people suffer from work-related stress. According to a recent study released by the CDC, over 40 million workers are getting by on fewer than six hours of sleep per night.

These numbers indicate there are a lot of people who are not getting a good night's sleep. Lack of adequate sleep will cause disorientation and deprivation of REM sleep, leading to digestive problems, muscle pain, fibromyalgia, and depression.

Therapists report that one of the most common manifestations of stress is a patient's inability to sleep well. Most of the time, patients report an overactive mind. They keep thinking about events that have happened, and they run various scenarios through their head to see if they might have been able to effect a different result. This type of insomnia is the direct result of stress in the workplace, or in relationships.

Other forms of insomnia are the result of a disruption of sleep patterns. This can happen with ongoing shift-changes at work, trying to fit too much into a day and sacrificing sleep in order to get everything done, or when a baby or young child is added to your life.

Other reasons for insomnia can be due to a noisy sleep environment, or over excitement about an upcoming event. Sometimes these reasons for insomnia can be easily overcome, but even reasons for short-term insomnia need to be addressed, because habits of a lifetime are not broken without reason.

Short-term insomnia can often be handled by evaluating the cause of the insomnia and taking steps to fix the problem. If you are in a new, noisier sleep environment, you could use white noise or hearing protection to help you return to your normal sleeping patterns. If you're excited about an upcoming event, once the event is over, you will likely return to your previous sleep habits. Perhaps you have taken to drinking caffeinated beverages too close to bedtime, and once those are eliminated from your diet, your insomnia disappears.

When you can't return to a normal sleeping pattern, you are suffering from long-term insomnia and this can be a much more difficult problem to handle. The first thing to consider is whether stress can be a factor, because at least 30 percent of the time it is. Some people believe that insomnia is just a condition, not an illness in itself. In either case, it is a symptom of problems to come if it is not handled.

Make a note on the next page about your sleeping habits. Do you suffer from insomnia at all? If so, how often does it occur, and how much do you feel it interferes with the quality of your life? When you can't sleep, what are you thinking about? Do you keep playing scenes over and over in your head, wishing you could change something that already happened? Have you had enough experience with insomnia that you even fear it, or anticipate that it will happen, creating a vicious cycle of insomnia, then the fear of not being able to sleep perpetuates the problem.

Make a note of all your sleeping habits that you believe might be related to stress.

How do you deal with it? How effective are your efforts?

Weight Gain

Not all people who are stressed suffer from insomnia. Instead, you might find yourself fighting the "Battle of the Bulge" because you're under constant stress; your cortisol levels are high and no matter what you try, those pounds just keep on creeping on.

Weight gain is directly attributable to stress.

This is not an excuse to allow yourself to remain overweight, but far too many people believe that gaining weight is your fault because you have no self-control. Many people suffer from chronic weight problems and they have more self-control than their peers. Unfortunately for them, their problems probably started years ago and they struggle continuously from a combination of stress, insulin resistance, enhanced fat storage, suppressed fat oxidation, greater muscle breakdown and a sluggish metabolism.

All these lead down the road to obesity. Every year more and more Americans are obese, and even more frightening are the increasing numbers who are morbidly obese, meaning they could be facing a premature death due to extra weight they are carrying around.

Stress causes a person to gain weight, because when one is stressed they actually burn fewer calories and are attracted to simple carbohydrates because eating them provides a temporary release from the feelings of stress. This then becomes a very dangerous and vicious cycle where a person eats because of stress, gains weight, then begins to obsess about the extra weight they're carrying, thereby causing even more stress.

You may have heard that when some people are stressed, they actually eat less. This is true, when it happens early in the stress response. In the earliest stages of stress, our bodies secrete a corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH), which suppresses the appetite. This hormone causes us to feel anxious and panicky, so it isn't one you want to take as a supplement, no matter how much it might suppress your appetite. The interesting thing about CRH is that its effect lasts only a few seconds, to a few minutes, because within that short time span, our CRH levels drop back down to normal.

Then, sometimes within minutes, our bodies secrete another hormone, cortisol, that stimulates our appetite. We then have a desire to eat, and that desire can linger for hours. This means that while the appetite-suppressing hormone CRH is in our system for just a few minutes, the cortisol response that our bodies experience can last for hours and hours after the stressful event.

It used to be that our body would burn off the excess cortisol that was produced by the stress response by either fighting or running away from the stressful event. Today, we would look ridiculous trying to fight, or run away from a stressful event while we are sitting in a traffic jam or sitting in a meeting at work battling our anger at a recent confrontation with a colleague.

Now, to make the picture look even bleaker, during periods of chronic stress, while our cortisol levels are elevated, our insulin response is also accelerated. When cortisol and insulin both rise at the same time, a signal is sent to our body to store as much fat as possible and to hold onto those fat stores. Stress actually prevents our body from being able to use our stored (excess) fat as an energy source.

No one wants to be overweight. From the standpoint of our vanity, we don't like how we look. However, from a health and longevity standpoint, the excess weight we have accumulated and carry daily leads us down the road to lowered energy, aching joints, diabetes, and ultimately all the factors of heart disease, which includes increased cholesterol levels, increased triglycerides, heart attack, and stroke.

Hypertension and Heart Disease

The stress in our lives that leads us to store fat in our abdominal area sets us up for something called Syndrome X or metabolic syndrome. This is considered by many experts to be the most immediate and severe health danger that the world will face in the 21st century. You've already learned that stress increases our cortisol secretion and is connected to insulin resistance, leading us to store great amounts of abdominal fat. This in turn is clearly linked to obesity and diabetes. Following that, we face increased risk of all heart disease factors.

But why does this lead to heart disease?

The "fight-or-flight" response was designed to prepare our bodies for great physical activity, and to either stand and fight, or turn and run, our body needs our heart to be in optimal condition. Our heart rate ramps up, our blood pressure rises, and our heart begins to pump more vigorously and strenuously than ever before by beating faster and harder.

During this time, our body shuts down nonessential systems, such as digestion, and moves blood to our extremities in a concerted effort to support our fight-or-flight needs. This is a beautiful example of a finely tuned machine.

The problem occurs when we constantly require our bodies to run "open-throttle" because it can't keep it up for extended periods of time. At some point, something's going to give. Elevated blood pressure causes damage to the interior lining of our blood vessels. These small lesions attract the sticky components of our blood like cholesterol, where they build over time causing narrowing of vessels. Our blood also thickens during times of great stress making it even harder for blood to flow through our now narrowed vessels.

Medical personnel are finally admitting that emotional stress is responsible for triggering heart attacks and strokes in people. The Mayo Clinic has demonstrated that psychological stress is a major factor in the incidence of heart attack. Because heart disease is a leading cause of death in America, and much of the western world, learning how to manage our stress has become increasingly important.