10 ways that stress affects your health

And 10 strategies to help you de-stress

By Gary Kim, MD, internal medicine physician at The Portland Clinic.

Stressed man

A little bit of stress in life is normal — your body and brain are designed to handle it. But when stress wears on you continuously without letting up, it can overwhelm your ability to cope and can cause all kinds of problems, including:

  • Muscle tension, which can increase headache and arthritis pain
  • Upset stomach, diarrhea and acid reflux
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Weakened immune system, which leads to more colds and other illnesses
  • Worsening of most chronic medical conditions
  • Increased flare ups of eczema, psoriasis, acne and other skin conditions
  • Higher risk of heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure
  • Self medication through alcohol or drug abuse
  • Over- or under-eating, contributing to obesity or malnutrition

According to WebMD, 75 to 90 percent of all doctors’ office visits are for stress-related problems. While your doctor is here to help, there are a lot of things you can do, as well, to reduce the toll of stress on your life. Here are 10 strategies to try:

1. Get physical

If you do nothing else, at least give exercise a try. It really does reduce stress, elevate mood and improve many stress-related problems. Start with a daily 10-minute walk, and build up to 30 minutes of any activity you enjoy.

2. Take a breather

Rapid, shallow breathing is a common response to stress, but it actually makes stress worse. Take a minute, a few times a day, to focus on your breathing. Take several deep, slow breaths, feeling the oxygen expand your belly and lungs as you inhale, and relaxing your shoulders as you slowly exhale.

3. Keep a stress diary

Nothing fancy or time consuming here — just a notebook where you can jot down whatever is getting to you at times of stress. Over time, this can help you identify the main stressors in your life so you can decide which ones you can manage better, and which ones need to go.

4. Learn the magic word

There is one word that can prevent a lot of stress: “No.” Committing yourself to too many obligations is a common cause of stress. Using your stress diary, prioritize your to-do list and learn to say “no” more often.

5. Stay connected

Many people react to stress by withdrawing from their social network, but staying connected to friends and family members is especially important when you’re stressed out. The people close to you offer a safe place to vent, a sympathetic ear, supportive companionship and perspective on what’s really important. Let them help.

6. Schedule time to disconnect

Time alone is just as important as time with friends and family. Schedule some time on a regular basis just for yourself, even if it’s just 10 or 15 minutes a day, to relax, reflect and rejuvenate.

7. Meditate

You don’t have to sit in the lotus position and chant — meditation is simply about shifting your focus away from past and future concerns and training it on the present moment. You can do that while swimming, walking, or doing yoga or tai chi — and get your exercise in while you’re at it. There are many meditation apps to help you get started. One app, called Calm, has been downloaded over 50 million times.

8. Do some lifestyle housecleaning

Is there a medical condition you’ve been neglecting? See your doctor and get it under control. Have you been eating a lot of junk food lately? Recommit to a healthy, balanced diet. Spending too much time watching reality shows? Turn off the TV and go out for a walk in the real world. Examine your lifestyle and make healthy changes where necessary.

9. Sleep on it

Sleep problems are both a cause and a symptom of stress. Make sleep a priority, even if you don’t have time; you’ll be less stressed and more effective in your waking hours. Many of the previous tips can improve sleep.

10. Don’t be afraid to seek help

If stress has gotten out of control and you are feeling overwhelmed, hopeless or desperate, you may need professional help to stop the downward spiral. See your primary care provider for advice, referrals and resources. A lot of help is available. Don’t be afraid to ask for it.