Stress: We all deal with it. And lately, it’s been ever-present in our lives. Stress can affect our physical and mental health, our relationships, and our work life—but there are ways to get through it. Grab a stress ball and check out these 10 facts.
Isn’t it so great to know that we can enjoy two types of stress? The difference between chronic and acute stress is pretty important, though. Acute stress happens when we’re going through an event with a finite start and finish. It’s something that’s only going to last for a short period of time, like when you have to take a test or give a speech. Chronic stress, on the other hand, is ongoing. You can’t escape it for weeks or months, or even longer—for example, when you have sustained unemployment or are going through a divorce.
Acute stress feels terrible in the moment (and for sure, it is), but you know it will pass. Your brain, body, and emotions will be able to recover and have more room for relaxation. But not so with chronic stress, “which, over time, takes a toll on the body in many different ways,” Dr. Gail Saltz, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital Weill Cornell Medical College and host of the podcast How Can I Help?, tells Mental Floss. You don’t ever get to relax if your stress is chronic; you just get to deal with more stress.
When you’re super stressed, Saltz says, your body is producing an increased amount of cortisol—and that can be destructive. You’ll be more likely to get sick, have digestive issues, suffer from chronic pain, develop an ulcer, or more.
“When maintained chronically at a high level, stress is destructive to many systems,” Saltz says. “The immune system, the digestive system, the cardiovascular system, and even in the brain, high cortisol maintained over a long period of time causes brain cell death.” The longer you’re stressed, the more likely you’ll be to forget things or be at higher risk for a mood disorder.
Have you heard of eustress? It’s the opposite of distress, a word you likely already know. Eustress is any stressor that’s positive—like a wedding coming up or an impending surprise party you’re hosting. These are the fun challenges that make you happy and excited, and they impact you in a positive way, rather than distress (the bad stress) that wears you down.
Mindfulness practices are popular because they work. Yoga, meditation, and similar activities can help relax your nervous system, which helps calm you down and relieves stress overall, Saltz says. When it’s done on a regular basis, even better. Maybe that means meditating for 15 minutes in bed every night before you fall asleep, or not leaving your bedroom in the morning until you do a sun salutation. If it calms you down or relaxes you in the moment, you might be more relaxed in the long term.
Saltz notes that yoga and meditation only help some people. For others, it can make them more nervous or anxious. In fact, a Scandinavian study from 2020 shows that adverse effects from meditation and mindfulness activities are more common than we might think. And, some yoga teachers even admit that yoga can sometimes cause more harm than good. You go into these things to relieve stress—not to cause more of it with an anxiety attack or dislocated shoulder.
Practicing paced deep breathing can lower your stress levels pretty quickly. It’s easy to do: First, you breathe in through your nose for four seconds. Then, you breathe out of your mouth for six seconds. Then repeat for as long as you need to calm down. Go ahead and try it now; see how you feel.
“A longer exhale than the inhale in a pattern slows the heart rate,” Saltz says. “It’s bringing your parasympathetic nervous system online and taking your sympathetic nervous system down a notch, undoing what the stress is doing, which is ramping up your sympathetic nervous system.”
If you start to feel woozy, try taking shallower breaths or changing the timing of your inhale and exhale. Just remember to keep the exhale longer.
In the late 1800s, the signs and symptoms a patient presented were thought to be related to specific illness. If someone was showing signs of stress, it wasn’t actually “stress”; it was a symptom of whatever disease they had. Endocrinologist Hans Selye, though, disagreed. He saw during medical school that all patients, no matter which illness they had, shared some similar non-specific symptoms: no appetite, weight loss, and bad mood among them. In 1936, after some experimentation with rats, Selye linked the non-specific symptoms into a single pattern called Selye’s Syndrome. It was the first exploration and discovery of how the body reacts to stressors. Today, Selye is also known as “the father of stress research” and the body’s reaction is called general adaptation syndrome.
If there’s one thing people consistently get wrong about stress, it’s the idea that stress can cause a serious illness.
“A lot of people think it causes whatever illness they have,” Saltz says. “Now, sometimes it may be connected to something, like peptic ulcer disease or gastritis or chronic pain issues. But a lot of people think it could cause cancer or something else that there’s just not any evidence for.”
In other words, stress might be a contributing factor to an illness, but generally it’s not going to be the main cause of disease.
Research from the 1950s suggested that men with Type A personality (high-achieving, competitive, aggressive) are more likely to have heart attacks, thanks to all the stress they’re under. Except that might not be true: The research was pretty likely swayed by Big Tobacco.
Tobacco companies had a marketing scheme to keep cigarettes and heart disease completely separate entities in the minds of the public. The companies touted smoking as a form of stress relief, to be used to stave off the heart issues faced by Very Busy People with high-stress lives. To promote awareness of stress and its consequences, tobacco companies funded major research conducted by Hans Selye and others linking a Type A lifestyle with a higher incidence of heart problems—blaming stress while taking the focus off the very real health ramifications of smoking.