Stress is a health problem in itself, but it can also lead to other physical and emotional complications. Stress can indirectly cause other health problems by affecting your behaviour.
Signs that you're under stress may include:
- unhealthy nutrition – you may skip meals, or overeat, or eat too much of the wrong foods – for instance, sugary and fatty foods
- dependence on other substances – you may drink too much, smoke, or use medications or street drugs to deal with the stress
- moody behaviour – you may feel irritable, sad, or guilty, and behave in ways that endanger your physical well-being, from getting into arguments to ignoring traffic lights
- sleep disturbances – you may not get enough sleep, and lack of sleep reduces the effectiveness of your immune system and further affects your judgment
- physical inactivity – you may not be motivated to get enough exercise
Stress also acts directly on your emotional health. Chronic stress can lead to anxiety or mood disorders. These can be disabling, can further affect your health, and can even lead to more serious problems that need hospitalization. And the awareness of being anxious or "feeling down" can cause further stress.
And stress directly affects your physical health. The natural stress response is a "fight or flight" situation. As the adrenaline starts pumping, your heart beats faster, your blood flow and blood pressure go up, and you breathe faster. But when you're sitting at your desk or stuck in traffic, all this does is increase the wear and tear on your system. You may get headaches and other aches and pains, nausea, and heart palpitations. Stress may also contribute to conditions such as heart disease, bowel disease, mental illness, and herpes, among others.
So if you're experiencing stress, it's not just a small problem affecting your nerves or your behaviour. It can have very important effects on your health. Be aware of what causes stress for you and watch for the physical signs of stress, and learn how to deal with it. See "Stress-busting tips" and "Helping your body beat stress" in this feature.
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