Why It’s Important to Master Stress
Stress has a powerful impact on various aspects of your life—not only can it affect your mood, energy level, relationships, and work performance, stress can also cause and exacerbate a wide variety of health conditions.
Impact on health
Persistent reactions to stress can lead to serious health problems, including:
- Cardiovascular disease. One study that tracked over 68,000 healthy adults for eight years found that those who reported feeling constantly under strain and unable to cope, among other symptoms of chronic stress, were likelier to die of cardiovascular disease. The results of another study associated chronic stress with a 40-60% increased risk of coronary heart disease.
- Digestive disorders. The “brain-gut” connection has a two-way effect: digestive disorders can cause stress, and the negative effects of stress can cause and aggravate digestive disorders. Part of the fight-or-flight response’s job is to halt digestion so the body can focus its energy on dealing with the perceived threat. Prolonged stress, then, can disrupt the normal digestive function and cause bloating, pain, and discomfort.
- Accelerated aging. Elissa Epel, a professor at the University of California, has focused much of her research on the relationship between stress and telomerase (the enzyme associated with aging). Her studies show that people with chronic stress in their lives, such as mothers with chronically ill children, have markedly shortened telomeres. In fact, one landmark study found that these women aged on average ten years faster than women who did not perceive chronic stress in their lives.
- Decreased immune functioning. Since the 1980s, research has found that stress can negatively affect the immune system. The American Psychological Association suggests that one cause of stress that might be most intricately linked to immune function is loneliness—people who don’t have a support system to lean on in stressful times wind up getting sicker more often.
Impact on relationships
If you have ever spent time with someone who is suffering from severe stress, you’ll understand the ways it can affect how you two relate—the anger, irritation, and frustration that comes from stress can easily influence the things we say and how we treat one another.
In a 2009 study, researchers Neff and Karney examined the lives of newlyweds and found that during periods of high perceived stress, people tended to react more intensely to the normal ups and downs in a relationship—creating, in effect, problems where there weren’t any. When we perceive high amounts of stress, we tend to blame or take out our frustrations on others. This can create real damage in a relationship, affecting communication and trust, which then becomes another source of stress.
Impact on job performance
Stress at work is very common—the fight-or-flight response reserved for true threats can often be triggered by a demanding manager or an upcoming deadline. But reacting to chronic stress can impair your ability to succeed at your job. In fact, stress can impact job performance in a variety of ways, including:
- Physical symptoms that recur on work days (for example, upset stomach, headaches)
- Difficulty making decisions
- Dread of work days
- Wanting to avoid or leave work
- Emotional swings at work (for example, anger outbreaks or feelings of helplessness)
Stress can lead to burnout—emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a sense of low personal accomplishment that leads to decreased effectiveness at work. For example, in a recent study from the prestigious journal Archives of Internal Medicine, over 45% of practicing physicians are experiencing at least one symptom of burnout, which can lead to dangerous mistakes and lapses in judgment that could affect a patient’s health. A similar pattern of burnout is undoubtedly found in many other occupations, demonstrating the importance of stress management in the workplace.