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When you’re stressed, you’re likely to feel physical signs in your body. But the one symptom you may not feel could have the greatest impact on your health.

Life can be hectic, and with everything we have to manage, it’s normal to sometimes feel stressed out. But that stress can affect our bodies in more ways than we realize.

How does stress affect the body?

“Everyone feels stress at different times in their life. But it’s when those pressures go unaddressed and build up over time that we’re left with chronic stress,” explains Dr. Michael Kayal, a cardiologist at Geisinger Community Medical Center, “which can show up in the body as physical symptoms.”

Some of these symptoms include:

  • Sleep problems
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Headaches
  • Heart palpitations
  • Body aches

Chronic stress, if left untreated, can also lead to higher blood pressure. “Elevated blood pressure is a common side effect of stress. And because high blood pressure doesn’t typically cause symptoms, when it happens, we often have no idea,” Dr. Kayal says.

Over a prolonged period, untreated high blood pressure (also called hypertension) can increase your risk of developing heart disease or put you at a higher risk of having a heart attack or stroke.

How does stress put me at risk for high blood pressure?

In stressful situations, your body produces hormones like adrenaline, which triggers your fight or flight response. This natural, fear-based response can make your heart temporarily beat faster and work harder. When your heart beats faster and harder, your blood vessels become narrower, which can lead to high blood pressure. 

During stressful times, your blood pressure may rise for a short time. Typically, your blood pressure will return to normal once the stressful situation ends.

How to reduce stress

The good news is that managing stress is easy, and it’s free. Infusing a few simple, healthy habits into your lifestyle can help lower your stress levels.

  • Get some exercise: Exercise is good for your heart. Not only does it help reduce stress and lower blood pressure, it makes you feel good. When you exercise, your brain releases endorphins, the chemicals responsible for boosting your mood. Aim for 20 minutes a day, 3 to 4 times a week, of physical activity like walking, running, swimming or lifting weights to get your blood pumping. 
  • Reduce your caffeine intake: While many people rely on caffeine to get them through the day, too much caffeine can increase your stress levels. Coffee isn’t the only culprit — tea, chocolate, many sodas and certain medications contain caffeine. Cutting down your intake can lower blood pressure and lessen some of the physical symptoms of stress, like an increased heart rate or feeling jittery.
  • Tickle your funny bone: They say laughter is the best medicine — and in this case, it’s a great one. Laughing boosts mood and just makes you feel better. Read a joke book, get silly with your family or watch your favorite comedy, and laugh the stress away.
  • Talk to the people you love: Phone calls, video chats and texts are all great ways to stay connected with those close to you, even for just a few minutes. Take time to talk about anything — even discussing ordinary topics like what you made for dinner can help lighten your mood.
  • Breathe: When you’re feeling stressed, practicing deep breathing or meditation for a few minutes a day can help calm you. A variety of free meditation or mindfulness apps are available to download onto your cell phone or tablet. If you have a home assistant, you can even ask it to help with deep breathing or meditation. There are also plenty of guided meditations available online. 
  • Get enough rest: When we don’t get enough rest, it affects our mood. Being tired can also impair your judgment and cause brain fog. It’s important to take time for yourself and make sure you’re getting enough rest. A short afternoon nap or going to bed a few minutes earlier can give you the restful sleep your body needs.

“It’s perfectly OK to take some time off to relax and recharge, whether that’s with some gardening, binge-watching a favorite show or taking a walk,” reminds Dr. Kayal.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

If you find yourself struggling, you’re not alone. It’s normal to feel stressed and overwhelmed, and it’s OK to ask for help. Whether that’s asking for help with household responsibilities, getting your friends or family involved or talking to a professional.

Next steps:

Make an appointment with Michael Kayal, DO
Get help managing your blood pressure
Learn more about heart care

Man catching his breath after a run to combat stress