Managing Stress: A Common Thread in Improving Your Health
Helene M. Langevin, M.D.
April 27, 2023
Dr. Griffin P. Rodgers, director of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, co-authored this month’s message with Dr. Helene M. Langevin, director of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
Annual health observances, like American Heart Month in February, Pain Awareness Month in September, or Diabetes Awareness Month in November, are important opportunities to recognize the burden of specific diseases and conditions. They’re also key in raising awareness of what individuals can do to positively impact their health. As we close out April’s Stress Awareness Month, it’s important to recognize how addressing stress can impact the numerous other conditions that we recognize throughout the year.
It’s easy to think of stress as only affecting your mind or your mood, but that misses the much bigger picture. The persistent toll of chronic stress is linked not only to depression and anxiety but also to the development of diabetes, heart disease, and autoimmune diseases. Stress can also contribute to digestive problems and headaches and may worsen asthma.
How does stress actually impact our health? Chronic stress can seep into many aspects of our lives, illustrating why it’s so important to examine health challenges through a whole person health framework. Stress can interrupt our sleep, diminish our energy to be physically active, sap our motivation to make healthy food choices, and even prompt us to seek out tobacco or alcohol as habitual forms of relief.
All these behaviors can show up in measurable changes in our bodies. Increased blood glucose, blood pressure, cholesterol, and inflammatory responses are health distress signals for potentially developing diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, or related conditions, such as stroke or nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Each of these conditions can cause a dramatic reduction of our life expectancy and quality of life.
On the other hand, managing stress can create a positive cascade in a person’s health and across the numerous diseases and conditions we think about during health observances throughout the year. Although the circumstances that create stress are often out of our control, learning ways to “press reset” on stress is more accessible than people may think. For example, practicing simple deep breathing, relaxation techniques, or mindfulness—even in “small bites”—can help interrupt our bodies’ physiologic responses to stress and counteract the ill effects that can accumulate over time.
In addition to focusing on the role of stress across numerous health issues, remember the basic steps of disease prevention, especially based on your own personal health risk profile:
- Engage in routine physical activity
- Choose healthy foods
- Get the sleep you need
- Check your A1C
- Check your blood pressure
So, for Stress Awareness Month this year, consider how stress might be a connecting thread running through your risk of different diseases and conditions and the small steps you can take to reduce your stress, starting now. Ask yourself, “What can I do today to turn down my stress?” Pick one stress management technique that fits your lifestyle, especially if you’re often pulled in multiple directions with little time to take care of yourself.
Just a few minutes of stress management a day can create a powerful “bang for the buck” in multiple areas of health and deliver benefits that you’ll feel throughout the year, regardless of the health topic we might be observing.