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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Chronic Stress Can Get Under Your Skin
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Lisa Jahns

Everyone knows the holidays can be stressful.  Now that they are over, take stock of how you feel. Are you are you relaxed and happy they are over?  Or are you feeling blue because the excitement is over, or because of the darkness of winter?

A certain level of stress is good.  That burst of adrenaline you get when you have a big task ahead with a deadline, such as cleaning the house before family arrives, is beneficial and helps you rise to the challenge.  It even promotes and improves memory to help your remember not to wait until the last minute next year. 

The problems begin when we experience prolonged or repeated stress.  Chronic stress over time leads to wear-and-tear on the body, and is strongly linked to chronic diseases such as heart disease.

Long-term stress affects the brain.  It can cause anxiety, exhaustion, depression, and decreased coping skills.  It leads to impaired memory and decision-making ability. It can affect eating, sleeping and activity habits.  Studies show that under stress many women shift from normal meal foods (vegetables, fruits, meat) to sweets, high fat snacks, and or “comfort foods”.  Men, in contrast, tend to seek out extra meal-type foods. 

Chronic stress promotes increased calorie intake and binge eating.  These dietary responses are thought to be a form of self-medication.  It may be that overeating can reduce the negative feelings associated with stress in the short term; but over the long-term, the practice can increase the amount and location of body fat. People who are highly stressed report more sleep difficulties than low stress people, and are less likely to exercise.  Regular exercise, plenty of sleep, and a healthy diet are key factors to stress reduction, it can be very difficult to break out of the stress cycle and regain control of your life.

Scientists are just recently beginning to understand how stress gets “under the skin” and influences health, but it appears that stress affects most systems of the body.  Stress causes fat stores to move from peripheral areas and deposit around your waist.  Thus, it is associated with increased abdominal obesity in people of all weights, even very lean individuals. 

Chronic stress also suppresses the immune system.  Studies have shown that people reporting being highly stressed produce fewer antibodies after receiving a vaccination, and that high stress levels negatively affect the ability to resist cold and flu viruses.  Chronic stress affects the cardiovascular system by increasing insulin resistance, elevating blood pressure, and promoting the generation of atherosclerotic plaques. 

Recent research has also linked stress with other conditions.  High stress levels are associated with poorer cognitive and physical functioning in older adults, and have been linked to accelerated cell aging.  One study found that the cells of women caring for chronically ill children had aged the equivalent of an extra 10 years more than women with healthy children. 

Major life events, including divorce, loss of a job or home, illness, or death of a family member are clearly stressful.  Other significant stressors include social rejection such as being targeted for excessive criticism, bullying, or exclusion at work.  Being “broken-up” with by a significant other, being shunned by a family member, and feeling “less” than others in the  community also can lead to feelings of stress.

So, what can one do to lower long-term stress and improve mood and health?  The feeling of having no control over a situation contributes to amount of stress experienced as a result.  If you can’t fix the problem—learning to “let go” can change for the better how that situation affects you.  Learn to say “no” when you feel overwhelmed by daily life.   Planning and taking a vacation can work wonders.  Having a trip already planned to look forward to can improve your mood.  Laugh. Smile at people even if you don’t feel like it.  Spend some time relaxing with those you care about, or make some new friends.  Take care of yourself; eat healthy foods, be sure you get enough sleep, but not too much; and don’t give up exercising just because the weather is cold and the days are short. 

The new Choice Fitness Center in Grand Forks offers not only many exercise options in a pleasant environment, but also places to get some coffee, relax and have a quiet chat with friends–activities that are proven stress-busters.


Last Modified: 3/20/2013