If you've ever been faced with a tight work deadline, cared for a sick loved one or struggled to pay the bills, you are well acquainted with stress — that overwhelming feeling that the world is demanding more than you can deliver. Unfortunately, stress isn't just exasperating; over time, it can wreak havoc on your emotional and physical well-being too.
"The behavioral and biological responses to stress have the potential to influence a wide range of health-related outcomes," says Sheldon Cohen, Ph.D., a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University.
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Lingering, chronic stress exerts its nasty effects in several ways. When we're stressed, we sometimes forget to be good to ourselves. We sleep and exercise less, gorge on junk food, smoke and can even forget to take our medications. Our bodies react to stress by releasing the hormone cortisol, as well as fight or flight hormones like epinephrine and norepinephrine. Over time, these hormones interfere with the immune system, heart and metabolism — making us more susceptible to many conditions and diseases.
"Psychological stress can be thought of as a social pollutant that can be 'breathed' into the body, disrupting a number of physiological pathways similar to air pollutants and other physical toxicants," says Rosalind Wright, an assistant professor at the Harvard School of Public Health.
Here are 10 health problems that chronic stress has recently been linked to:
1. Depression. Up to one quarter of people who experience severe stress become clinically depressed. Severe chronic stress "seems to interfere with our ability to regulate our emotions," Cohen says.
2. Obesity. When stressed, the body releases a molecule called neuropeptide Y, which simulates fat cells to grow in both size and number, according to a 2008 study published in Nature Medicine. In addition, chronically stressed people tend to maintain an unhealthy diet.
3. Dementia. A 2009 Neurology study reported that older people who are frequently distressed and isolated are 50 percent more likely to develop dementia than their calmer counterparts.
4. Frequent infections. According to a 2004 analysis of 293 studies published in Psychological Bulletin, chronic stress suppresses the immune system, making people more likely to catch a cold or the flu.
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