When it comes to things that aren’t good for us, some are easier to eliminate than others. For instance, we can say no to French fries and stop smoking, improving our long-term health outlook with healthier lifestyle choices. However, stress is one part of modern life that seems pervasive and can be a challenge to control.
“Virtually everything is affected by stress,” says Dr. Tim Grove, director of the Pain Management Program at St. Louis Behavioral Medicine. “The body responds the same way, whether we have an argument with our spouse or a tiger is prowling after us. The body doesn’t know the difference and it issues the same physiologic responses.”
Those responses are known to have wideranging effects on organ systems and tissues, and some stress-related physical changes are obvious while others are more insidious. For example, Dr. Helen Kim-James, a dermatologist with Chesterfield Valley Dermatology, notes that stress contributes to many skin problems, some more noticeable than others.
“Patients with skin conditions, such as psoriasis, eczema or acne, can experience a worsening of their condition,” she says. “Stress also can cause brittle nails and thinning hair. It can dehydrate the skin, damaging the skin barrier and allowing irritants, allergens and infections in.”
Once an infection has infiltrated the body, a stressed-out person is less likely to fight it successfully. “We know that it directly affects things like the immune system. The T-cells and other cells that fight infections actually are inhibited when we’re under stress, which makes us more likely to succumb to infection,” Grove says.
The fight-or-flight response triggered by stress releases hormones that can cause damage when present for prolonged periods. For instance, people with diabetes may have trouble regulating blood sugar when stressed because hormonal signals make glucose and fat available to cells in order to release the energy needed to escape from danger.
“Stress increases the level of pro-inflammatory hormones. This can lead to worsening of psoriasis or acne, dehydration and finewrinkle formation, and flushing,” Kim-James says. Inflammation also may contribute to cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal problems and other systemic illnesses.
There is no ‘cure’ for chronic stress caused by work and other demands, Grove says. “But there are ways to learn to manage it and deal with it more effectively. Those are the things we need to do, and everybody could benefit.”
Grove advises people who have serious, chronic stressors, such as ongoing care of an ill relative or marital strife, to seek professional guidance in identifying and developing stress-management techniques. He also suggests that people learn to simplify their life, both in terms of time commitments and material possessions: Financial stress can be relieved by living within one’s means. And taking time every day for relaxing and enjoyable pursuits is important, and having a strong social network—not just online, but in person—also has been shown to help people cope with daily stressors.
“As most physicians will tell you, a healthy diet, water, exercise and adequate sleep are important for overall health,” Kim- James says. “While stress is inevitable, it is important to develop healthy habits that will help us to care for ourselves when we experience stress. In addition, there is increasing evidence that foods rich in antioxidants can help the body both prevent and repair damage caused by stress.”
So take a deep breath, relax for a minute, drink a cup of antioxidant-rich green tea, and begin to counteract the negative effect of stress in your life.