Stress is just a part of life, but too much negative stress can have a serious impact on your health and wellness. Researchers have shown that while stress can sometimes be good, helping you prepare to face challenges and perform your best, it can also have both short-term and long-term effects on your health. It can impair the immune system, interfere with sleep patterns, increase blood pressure, and can even make it more difficult to conceive.
But it’s not just your body that suffers – your brain feels the effects of stress as well. Let’s take a closer look at just a few of the different ways that stress can affect your mind and body.
Stress Can Lead to Poor Decision-Making
Researchers have found that stress can affect how you make decisions. In a study published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, participants were placed under stress by having them place a hand in ice water for several minutes. The researchers found that in these stressful situations, participants were more likely to pay attention to positive information while discounting negative information.
The study’s authors, Mara Mather and Nichole R. Lighthall, suggest that when you are making an important decision under stress, like trying to decide if you should accept a new job position, you are more likely to focus on the benefits of each alternative rather than the potential downsides. For example, when weighing the pros and cons of a job offer, you would be more likely to focus on the benefits such as increased pay and time off instead of the negatives such as more work hours and a longer commute.
“We make all sorts of decisions under stress,” Mather explains. “If your kid has an accident and ends up in the hospital, that’s a very stressful situation and decisions need to be made quickly. It seems likely that how much stress you’re experiencing will affect the way you’re making the decision.”
Stress Can Make You Forgetful
Do you ever find yourself so stressed out that you find yourself forgetting simple things like where you left your keys or phone? According to researchers, stress may be the culprit behind these day-to-day memory problems. ABC News reports that researchers in the medical community refer to this affliction as “subjective cognitive impairment” or “busy life syndrome.”
Dr. David Ballard of the American Psychological Association suggests that the inundation of information via work, phones, texting and Internet helps contribute to this problem. “The quantity of information and data out there is just too much to process,” he explained to ABC News. “People forget keys, forget why they came there.”
Are you looking for some ways to get your stress levels under control and avoid pesky forgetfulness problems? Elizabeth Scott, M.S., offers some of the best ways to relieve stress. She suggests using tactics such as journaling, meditation, biofeedback, and time management to help tame the excessive stress in your life.
Chronic Stress Can Impair Memory
Have you ever found yourself forgetting things (such as where you left your keys or where you parked your car) when you are under a great deal of stress? When facing a huge deadline at school or at work, you might find that it becomes more difficult to remember little details about your daily life. Previous research has linked chronic stress, or repeated stress that leads to continuous state of physiological arousal, to an array of problems including emotional distress and weakened immunity. One study by researchers from the State University of New York at Buffalo demonstrates how chronic stress also impairs your memory.
The study, published in the journal Neuron, looked at the physiological effects of stress hormones on the brain. Earlier research had shown that stress hormones influenced the prefrontal cortex (PFC), an area of the brain associated with memories and decision-making. “However,” explains lead author Dr. Zhen Yan, “little is known about the physiological consequences and molecular targets of long-term stress in PFC, especially during the adolescent period when the brain is more sensitive to stressors.”
Researchers discovered that repeated exposure to stress led to a significant loss in glutamate receptors in juvenile rats. Glutamate plays an important role in the functioning of the prefrontal cortex. The researchers also discovered that by blocking the molecular mechanisms that led to decreased glutamate receptors, they were able to decrease stress-induced memory loss.
“Since PFC dysfunction has been implicated in various stress-related mental disorders, delineating molecular mechanisms by which stress affects the PFC should be critical for understanding the role of stress in influencing the disease process,” Yan suggests.
It Messes With Your Body, Too
Are you one of the millions of U.S. adults trying to lose weight? According to the results of some research, keeping your stress levels low and getting a moderate amount of sleep may help you reach your goals. In a study published in the International Journal of Obesity, researchers looked at nearly 500 participants to determine if factors such as stress, depression, sleep, computer use, and television viewing were correlated with weight loss.
Participants in the study attended weekly meetings where they were weighed and received advice on losing weight. The participants were instructed to reduce daily caloric intake by 500 calories, consume more fruits and vegetables, cut back on sugar, keep a daily food journal, and increase exercise to 180 minutes each week.
Participants were also asked to report their levels of depression, insomnia, and stress and also track how many hours were spent sleeping, watching television or using the computer. Previous studies have suggested that these factors are associated with obesity, but not many have looked at how they might impact weight loss.
In the first phase of this ongoing study, researchers found that people with the lowest stress levels who got between six and eight hours of sleep each night were the most likely to lose at least 10 pounds. The authors of the study caution that the same results might not apply to all people and that motivation also plays an important role.
“This study suggests that when people are trying to lose weight, they should try to get the right amount of sleep and reduce their stress,” explained lead author Charles Elder, MD, MPH, an investigator with the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research in Portland, Oregon. “Some people may just need to cut back on their schedules and get to bed earlier. Others may find that exercise can reduce stress and help them sleep. For some people, mind/body techniques such as meditation also might be helpful.”
Check out these links for more information how you can lower your stress levels.
Eunice Y. Yuen, Jing Wei, Wenhua Liu, Ping Zhong, Xiangning Li, Zhen Yan. Repeated Stress Causes Cognitive Impairment by Suppressing Glutamate Receptor Expression and Function in Prefrontal Cortex. Neuron, 2012 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2011.12.033.
Kaiser Permanente. (2011, March 29). Moderate sleep and less stress may help with weight loss. Retrieved from http://share.kaiserpermanente.org/article/moderate-sleep-and-less-stress-may-help-with-weight-loss/
Mather, N. R. Lighthall. (2012). Risk and Reward Are Processed Differently in Decisions Made Under Stress. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21(1), 36. DOI: 10.1177/0963721411429452
Image: Dave Meier
Kendra Cherry, MS.Ed., is an author, educator, and founder of Explore Psychology, an online psychology resource. She is a health writer and editor specializing in psychology, mental health, and wellness. She also writes for Verywell Mind and is the author of the Everything Psychology book (Adams Media).
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