The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health defines stress as “a physical and emotional reaction that people experience as they encounter changes in life” By that definition, stress can be interpreted as a positive, and in some cases, it is. Stressful changes in life can serve as performance motivators.
However, the harmful and widespread signs of stress in mental health among a majority of Americans have given stress a bad wrap—and for good reason.
According to the American Institute of Stress, 73 percent of Americans regularly experience psychological symptoms caused by stress, and 48 percent of Americans feel their stress has increased over the past five years. In addition, 48 percent of Americans say stress has a negative impact on their personal and professional life.
These figures indicate that chronic stress is a public health crisis more than anything. Chief Executive Officer of the American Psychological Association, Norman B. Anderson, PhD. says, “America is at a critical crossroads when it comes to stress and our health.”
What is Stress Awareness?
With stress on the rise, bringing awareness to its signs and symptoms is an important retroactive measure. So, what is stress awareness all about? The answer is simple: identifying the stressors in your life and determining ways you can work to change them.
Stress will be experienced differently by every individual, and therefore, must be addressed personally and situationally. Often times, it is all too easy to push ourselves through times of stress with the justification that “soon” matters will resolve or that “soon” we will take care of ourselves. Delaying self-care only perpetuates stress and exacerbates the symptoms.
More often than not, symptoms of stress may become so rooted in our mental health that we fail to recognize them as signs of an issue. Ever dealt with a sustained headache during a high-stress time and blamed it on allergies? Ever had trouble recalling what you did earlier in a day and wrote it off as a testament to your hefty to-do list? These tell-tale signs of chronic stress affecting the mind are easy to attribute to less serious issues.
You may be suffering, unaware of the true affliction. Let’s assess.
Here are six signs that stress is affecting your mental health.
1. Emotional Reactivity
According to a report from the American Institute of Stress on stress effects, “your central nervous system (CNS) is in charge of your ‘fight or flight’ response. In your brain, the hypothalamus gets the ball rolling, telling your adrenal glands to release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones rev up your heartbeat and send blood rushing to the areas that need it most in an emergency, such as your muscles, heart, and other important organs.”
Typically, this “fight or flight” response to stress will go away after the source of stress is managed. However, if stress becomes a chronic condition, then the mind lives in a state of constant “fight or flight.” This hinders the mind’s capacity to cope with stressors and react with appropriate emotional responses.
Maybe you’ve recognized yourself giving more emotional investment to a circumstance beyond your control when you’ve been particularly stressed. Perhaps you’ve “snapped” at a time when you felt pressure to say calm. These are classic examples of the way stress inhibits the mind’s capacity to regulate mood and determine an appropriate response.
Due to the fact that stress plays a role in mood, it’s safe to assert that stress may also worsen pre-existing mental conditions.
Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) researchers have studied the ways in which the immune system and nervous system communicate with each other and impact people’s mental and emotional health. Their findings shared on MentalHelp.net suggest that chronic stress can also lead to or exacerbate mood disorders such as depression and anxiety, bipolar disorder, cognitive problems, personality changes, and problem behaviors.”
2. Trouble Remembering
Another major impact of stress is memory loss. In a study conducted by Dr. Sudha Seshadri, professor of neurology at UT Health San Antonio, researchers discovered brain shrinkage in middle-aged participants, who also experienced memory loss. These consequences were a result of high cortisol levels.
The study’s participants indicated signs of memory loss and brain shrinkage before they were reportedly experiencing symptoms of it. While it may be easy to write off stress as an “emotion” rather than a health risk, it’s imperative to our long-term well-being that we give it acknowledgment and treat it accordingly.
A different study from the University of Iowa found a possible link between stress hormones and short-term memory loss in older adults, according to IowaNow. Published in the Journal of Neuroscience, the study revealed that having elevated cortisol levels can result in memory lapse with age.
This is because high amounts of cortisol lead to gradual loss of synapses in the prefrontal cortex—a region of the brain responsible for short-term memory function. IowaNow explains, “when we get older, repeated and long-term exposure to cortisol can cause them to shrink and disappear.”
3. Difficulty Concentrating
In addition to memory loss, sustained stress may lead to regular trouble focusing, caused by how high cortisol levels affect the brain.
Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor of medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, believes stress and concentration are inversely correlated. Harvard Health Publishing describes Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness practices as a means of cultivating better focus.
A favored approach to work these days is multi-tasking, and our minds are often focused on too many things at once. The stress that this causes may reduce our capacity to explore or achieve in any one area without a sense of great strain.
Sometimes, the best way to achieve more is to strive to achieve less. So, consider reducing the number of tasks on your to-do lists. If you find, then, that you’re still unable to focus on just one thing—you may be suffering from chronic stress.
4. Changes In Appetite
Signs of stress don’t stop at memory and concentration loss. Individuals experiencing sudden peaks in stress may also notice fluctuations in weight.
Harvard Health Publishing explains that stress, in the short term, decreases appetite.
“The nervous system sends messages to the adrenal glands atop the kidneys to pump out the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline). Epinephrine helps trigger the body’s fight-or-flight response, a revved-up physiological state that temporarily puts eating on hold,” their mental health newsletter states.
When stress persists over a long period of time, the adrenal glands release cortisol rather than adrenaline. In addition to shrinking and decreasing synapses in the prefrontal cortex, high cortisol levels also increase appetite.
The Harvard Health newsletter further articulated that “stress also seems to affect food preferences.”
When you’re stressed, you may reach for chips or cookies over the healthier option. Eating these foods that stress makes you crave may then spike insulin levels. Higher insulin levels, in combination with higher cortisol levels, can cause weight gain over time.
5. Increased Vulnerability to Substance Reliance
In addition to food, stress can also alter our relationship to substances and increase our likelihood to engage in drug use. According to an article published in Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, “Chronic Stress, Drug Use, and Vulnerability to Addiction,” evidence from animal studies support the notion that acute exposure to stress increases initiation and escalation of drug use and abuse.”
In multiple studies, stress was found to “enhance acquisition of opiates, alcohol, and psychostimulant self-administration.” Moreover, those experiencing stressed were more likely to seek out drugs.
Since drugs enact chemical changes in the brain and activate pleasure receptors, those coping with stress may deem drug use as a means to “blow off
some steam.” But often, self-medication to manage stress worsens stress when the user stops taking the drug. Consequently, the user needs a higher dosage to self-medicate. Over time, these behaviors establish a cycle of abuse that can easily lead to addiction.
Stress may worsen pre-existing mental conditions. It is a known fact that mental illnesses are also a risk factor for addiction since sufferers may turn to drugs as a form of self-medication. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) reports, “about 20 percent of Americans with an anxiety or mood disorder such as depression have an alcohol or other substance use disorder.”
This figure is one that cannot be ignored, especially because relieving stress is something that can be achieved often through simple life changes. Those predisposed to substance abuse or addiction especially would benefit from recognizing what their stressors are and striving to eliminate or cope with them in healthier ways.
6. Decreased Sex Drive
One final impact of stress that isn’t acknowledged nearly enough is the way it may impact our interpersonal relationships. According to Psychology Today, “stress may be the single biggest culprit affecting intimacy and sex.”
“During stress, blood vessels don’t dilate fully and the sphincter fails to constrict, both contributing to erectile dysfunction,” Psychology Today authors write.
Additionally, endorphins which are released during stress block pain, which also blocks the release of LHRH (luteinizing hormone releasing hormone). This causes a drop in testosterone production.
High cortisol levels that occur during stress also make the testes less responsive to a hormone necessary for physical arousal. This may result in erectile dysfunction. The only way to reprogram the body is to address the stress and regain control of the mind.
High cortisol also affects LH levels in women. Since LH levels are directly correlated to ovulation, stress may often keep women from experiencing a regular period.
Psychology Today added, “FSH, prolactin, estrogen, and progesterone levels are disrupted as well. The net effect in females is not only an irregular ovulatory cycle but an environment in which fertilization and implantation of the egg into the uterine wall is more difficult.”
While these facts may be disheartening for current sufferers of chronic stress, it’s important to recognize we can shift our lifestyle to cope with stress in healthier ways.
When we allow our external circumstances to influence our behaviors, thoughts, and identity in such a tremendous way, we lose aspects of life that deliver pleasure, joy, and peace of mind. When we fail to address those external circumstances, we become victims to stress. Let’s change that.
Stay tuned throughout the month of April for more on stress awareness, because your mental health matters.
Featured photo by Etienne Boulanger on Unsplash