Healthy Coping for Stress Awareness Month

Our lives are full of things that can stress us out. From overflowing workloads, hectic commutes, and the endless noise of living in a big city to keeping a family healthy and safe during a global pandemic, our stress levels can quickly get out of hand if left unchecked. 

In recognition of Stress Awareness Month, Weill Cornell Medicine is helping people understand how stress can affect physical and mental health, along with some expert advice on how to cope with stress in healthy ways.  

What Is Stress? 

Stress is your body’s response to a challenge or demand, and not all of those responses are negative. Common stressors may include preparing for vacation, getting a speeding ticket, taking out a loan, troubles at work, getting married, having a baby and lots of other everyday life events.  

When you experience stress, your body releases the hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which increase alertness and put you in a “fight or flight” mode. When this happens, you may experience an increase in blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar, according to the National Institutes of Health. 

Stress is a part of life—everyone experiences stress now and then—and short-term stress can be helpful. For example, stress can help you meet a deadline or prevent a car accident.  

“Anxiety is not new, and anxiety is very common and really normal,” says Shannon Bennett, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist, assistant professor of psychology in Clinical Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medicine, and director of psychology for the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYP/Weill Cornell Medical Center. “To a point, it’s important that we feel anxious sometimes.” 

It’s the long-term stress, also called chronic stress, that’s unhealthy. Chronic stress can cause serious mental and physical health problems, and it’s an issue that’s becoming more common. 

“If something makes you anxious, whether that's a social stressor, academics or things that you see on the news, there's no way to disconnect from that anymore—or it's much more difficult to disconnect from it,”  Bennett says. “Kids and adults are constantly surrounded by our anxiety triggers, and it's starting to overwhelm and really stress people out.” 

Chronic Stress Hurts the Body 

According to the American Psychological Association, our bodies can handle stress in small doses. However, if we experience chronic stress, our bodies respond in negative ways. Here’s how chronic stress effects different parts of our bodies: 

  • Cardiovascular system—The cardiovascular system includes the heart, blood vessels and blood. Chronic stress can seriously impact the health of your heart and blood vessels. When the body regularly produces increased levels of adrenaline and cortisol, heart rate and blood pressure rise. Research shows persistent stress can inflame the coronary arteries and cause a heart attack. Long-term stress also increases stroke risk. 
  • Endocrine system—The endocrine system makes and manages the body’s hormones. Chronic stress can interfere with the line of communication your endocrine system has with your immune system. When that interference is constant, health problems can develop, such as chronic fatigue, diabetes, obesity, depression and immune disorders. 
  • Female reproductive system—This includes the glands, organs and tissues responsible for sexual reproduction. Chronic stress can cause the menstrual cycle to completely stop, become irregular or make periods more painful. Chronic stress has also been linked to low sex drive and infertility. 
  • Gastrointestinal system—The gastrointestinal system includes the mouth, salivary glands, throat, stomach, intestines, rectum and anus. Short-term stress can cause temporary bloating, nausea, stomach pain and changes in appetite. But chronic stress can worsen those problems, change the gut microbiota, weaken the intestinal barrier and cause the release of gut bacteria into the body.  
  • Male reproductive system—This includes the glands, organs and tissues responsible for sexual reproduction and controls sex drive. Chronic stress can lead to a decline in sex drive, erectile dysfunction and impotence. Chronic stress has also been linked to lower sperm count, which can make it more difficult for partners to conceive. 
  • Musculoskeletal system—The musculoskeletal system contains the body’s bones, ligaments, tendons, cartilage and muscles. Muscle tension is a common reaction to stress. Chronic muscle tension can lead to tension headaches and migraines, back pain and chronic pain in other parts of the body. 

How to Manage Stress 

Your body is equipped to handle acute stress, or stress that comes on suddenly when performing certain everyday tasks and then stops. If you experience chronic stress, it’s important to learn ways to cope with it and lessen your risk of developing chronic disease or other negative effects.  

Here are some healthy ways to manage stress: 

  • Deep breathing. Studies show that slow, deep breathing can help lower blood pressure and reduce cortisol levels. 
  • Exercise. Regular physical activity can significantly reduce stress. The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity per week or a combination of the two. Aerobic activity is anything that increases your heart rate, such as walking, cycling or swimming. 
  • Get outside. Multiple studies have linked spending time in nature to improved mood. 
  • Healthy eating. For many people, chronic stress can increase a desire for unhealthy foods that are high in sugar and saturated fat. Prevent unhealthy weight gain and disease by eating a regular healthy diet of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains and non or low-fat dairy. Limit alcohol intake and avoid using drugs to deal with stress. 
  • Mindfulness and meditation. Like deep breathing, mindfulness and meditation have been linked to lower blood pressure and reduced cortisol levels. They may also reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression and help you sleep. If you don’t know where to start, try downloading a meditation app on your smartphone. 
  • Sleep. Getting enough sleep can help improve your thought process and mood. Aim for eight to nine hours every night. 

Another way to reduce stress is to lessen the amount of time you spend following the news. 

“We need to become much more conscious about what we consume in terms of information in this digital, repetitive, overstimulating informational culture,” says Gurmeet Kanwal, M.D., clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medicine and associate attending psychiatrist at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. “Turn off the TV. Don't allow every news channel to send you notifications on every device and listen to the news one or two times a day instead of all day long. Burnout is your brains way of protesting the injustice and brutality of too much information, too much stress and too much repetition.”  

If you’re having trouble managing stress, find a doctor at Weill Cornell Medicine who can help.