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Stress is more than a mental struggle. It triggers a fight-or-flight reaction that can affect your physical health.
“Stress can cause the system to go haywire,” says Deanna Allgeyer, MD, a family medicine physician with Kettering Health.
Stress stimulates the adrenal glands, producing hormones that regulate important functions including blood pressure.
“When your heart rate is elevated,” explains Dr. Allgeyer, “anything downstream of that will be affected.”
Stress causes many physical effects, including
- Abdominal pain
- Muscle tension
- Restless sleep
Patients may develop ulcers from increased acid in the stomach. Uncontrolled high blood pressure could also lead to a stroke.
Patients with underlying conditions such as diabetes and hypertension need to pay especially close attention to their anxiety levels: stress raises blood sugar and blood pressure.
“Stress exacerbates other medical conditions,” said Dr. Allgeyer. “For example, a patient may have their diabetes under control, but emotional distress can still throw their systems out of whack.”
Don’t discount stress
When a patient experiences a physical symptom, medical experts will investigate all options.
“If a patient comes in with abdominal pain, we’ll do the necessary exams to figure out what’s triggering the issue and rule out potential causes,” says Dr. Allgeyer.
However, if everything looks fine when the results come back, the next logical step is to analyze how stress factors into the equation. Dr. Allgeyer says some patients don’t believe her when she concludes that stress could be the source of their physical ailments.
“They’re amazed to learn what stress and anxiety can do to the body.”
Reduce the effects
Patients can take steps to minimize the effects of stress. Focus first on leading a healthy lifestyle.
“Generally speaking, if you’re healthy and don’t have underlying issues, then nothing is getting majorly exacerbated due to stress,” says Dr. Allgeyer. “Plus, exercising regularly increases endorphins and that can make a big difference in your day-to-day life.”
As for the mental aspect, Dr. Allgeyer emphasized that it’s possible to train yourself to become less overwhelmed in stressful situations. “I always tell patients that they have ‘tools in the toolbox’ that will help them calm down and control the fight-or-flight response, like taking big, deep breaths.
“Your mind is a very powerful thing,” she adds. “I always talk about the importance of self-care and how focusing on your mental state can really improve things.”
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