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Q&A: What Are the Physical Effects of Stress?

How stress can affect you mentally and physically.

We all live with stress. We know it when we see it, many of us suffer from it and we often don't do anything about it. But there is good news: We can harness stress when it's helpful and keep it at bay when it's not. Here's what you need to know about stress and how to manage it:

Q: Is stress bad for you?
Stress is not just in your head; it's not just mental. It affects your body and mind. Short-term stress can be great: The sense of urgency that you feel may motivate you to finish a project, run a little farther or try harder. You can harness stress in these situations to your benefit. That anxiety you feel in your stomach -- those butterflies -- can remind you to get going. However, long-term exposure to stress (chronic stress) is not good for you. In fact, it increases your risk of developing a variety of diseases, and if you're already sick it hinders your healing.

Bottom Line: A little stress in our lives is OK; in fact, it's helpful in most instances. A lot of stress, or persistent stress, is actually not OK and can be harmful.

Q: What does stress do to your body?
A: Our bodies have hormones that work together to keep us healthy. In the brain, the hypothalamus and the pituitary glands stimulate various organs in the body, depending on the situation. When stressed, the adrenal glands are stimulated to produce specific hormones that help our bodies handle the stressful situation. This is known as the "flight or fight" response.

The three primary stress hormones -- adrenaline (also called epinephrine), norepinephrine and cortisol -- work together to coordinate our bodies' stress response. Adrenaline pumping through you might cause sweaty palms, a racing heart and tense muscles. Why is this good? Energy. If you're in a tight spot, you've got to be able to move quickly. Adrenaline provides this energy. The hormone norepinephrine helps increase focus. Adrenaline and norepinephrine work together to make sure that we can respond and deal with a situation when we have to.

[Read More: How “Good Stress” Can Help You Get Stronger]

Cortisol, the third stress hormone, can save you in a crisis, yet it can cause harm if chronically released. Produced in the adrenal glands, cortisol helps the body maintain blood pressure during stressful situations. However, when chronically produced, it can actually have the opposite effect, increasing both blood pressure and blood sugar levels. Chronic release of cortisol also weakens the immune system, increasing your risk of disease.

Bottom Line: The three main stress hormones can help you deal in the short term with challenging situations, but chronic exposure causes more harm than good.

Q: What are some easy ways to treat stress?
A: Fortunately, dealing with stress is something that we all can easily learn how to do. The most common and most effective approaches include improved nutrition, exercise, sleep, practicing mindfulness behaviors and -- worst-case scenario -- medication.

Nutrition: Think increased fruits and vegetables and less processed foods and refined sugars. Eat more whole grains and fiber and drink plenty of water. Even better, limit caffeine and alcohol -- especially close to bedtime.

Exercise: Get moving! You should get at least 30 minutes of exercise a day. Doesn't matter how you get it done: 10 minutes here, 10 minutes there. Have you heard of a "runner's high"? High-intensity workouts in particular are known for releasing hormones that make you feel good.

Sleep: The goal is around seven or eight hours of sleep per night for adults. Don't skimp: You can't "make it up" on the weekends or during your vacation. Feeling rested is just one of the many benefits of a good night's sleep -- and an important one for dealing with stressful situations.

[Read More: Why Sleep Is so Important & How to Get More of It]

Mindfulness: Whether you practice yoga, meditate or partake of any other mindful activity, these behaviors are a great antidote to stress in your daily life. They help you focus in the moment and later on.

Medications: Sometimes lifestyle modification isn't enough. In that case, there are medications that your physician can prescribe to help you handle the stress in your life. If you're feeling continually stressed or overwhelmed, then speak with your physician about this important therapeutic option.

Bottom Line: Treatment for stress exists, and most of the successful methods center on lifestyle modification.

--Dr. Ricanati

Readers -- Do you feel stressed out on a daily basis? What do you do to relieve it? How do you prevent yourself from getting too stressed? Leave a comment below and let us know.

Beth Ricanati, M.D., built her career bringing wellness into everyday life, especially for busy moms juggling work and children. Dr. Ricanati worked at Columbia Presbyterian's Center for Women's Health and then at the Women's Health Center at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio. In 2008, she joined the Cleveland Clinic's Wellness Institute to serve as the founding medical director of Lifestyle180, a groundbreaking lifestyle-modification program to treat chronic diseases with nutrition, exercise and stress management. Now based in Southern California, she's written wellness content for and served as a consultant for medical projects and start-ups.

Follow her on Instagram. 

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