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Are You Doing Enough to Prevent Stress From Taking a Toll on Your Health?

03/09/2015 10:59 am ET | Updated May 09, 2015

The cumulative effects of chronic stress creep up on you slowly. Initially, you may be able to shrug off minor health issues and sleep difficulties and explain away decreased productivity and increased irritability. But eventually, the toll stress takes on your health adds up, and ultimately, it could take years off your life.

Chronic stress isn't the only problem. Sometimes, a single event interrupts a normally peaceful life. A health scare, loss of a loved one, divorce, or unemployment are just a few of the life altering circumstances that can skyrocket stress levels overnight. Being ill-prepared and unequipped to deal with life's inevitable challenges leaves us vulnerable to the dangerous effects of stress.

The Harmful Effects of Stress

Stress impacts almost every system in your body. Stress can cause the body to produce high levels of adrenaline (as well as other hormones) and in turn, heart rate and respiration increases. Glucose in the blood rises as the body prepares for the well-known "fight or flight" reaction.

The human body was never meant to live in chronic state of "fight or flight" because it can cause widespread damage. Potential health risks associated with stress range from heart disease and stroke to diabetes and obesity. A 1994 study published in Harvard Business Review estimates between 60 and 90 percent of all doctor visits are stress-related. Yet the vast majority of people say they've never even mentioned stress to their doctors.

Stress also takes a tangible effect on our mental health by shrinking our brains. A 2012 study conducted by Yale found that stress caused by adverse life events reduced grey matter in the prefrontal cortex. This region of the brain is responsible for self-control and emotion regulation. Smaller brain volumes have been linked to increased mood disorders, like depression and anxiety, as well as increased risk taking behavior and substance abuse.

The Negative Stress Cycle

Stress impacts the way we think, feel, and behave. It often leads to a negative self-perpetuating cycle that is hard to escape. Here's an example:

Bob's job places a lot of demands on him, and he's started working from home in the evenings. Despite his intention to get more done, his longer days actually decrease his overall productivity. He can't concentrate and he feels disorganized and scattered. He feels compelled to work even longer days to meet his deadlines.

Bob's stress level interferes with his sleep. He also doesn't have time to cook healthy meals so he reaches for whatever he can eat behind his desk. He certainly doesn't have any time for exercise. His daily habits take a toll on his health and ultimately, reduce his resilience to the negative effects of stress.

Meanwhile, his stress causes increased irritability. Lately, Bob has been arguing with his wife and he's short-tempered with his kids. As a result, there's a lot of tension in the home, which gives him more reasons to be stressed out.

Unfortunately, Bob's not alone in inadvertently making his stress worse. According to the American Psychological Association, 42 percent of adults say they are not doing enough, or aren't sure whether they're doing enough, to manage their stress. A whopping 20 percent of Americans never even attempt to relieve or manage their stress.

Combating Stress Effectively

It's easy to put other priorities ahead of self-care, especially in today's busy world. But ignoring the toll stress takes on our lives could be deadly. Although you can't eradicate all stress from your life, you can take steps to reduce its harmful effects.

Proactively working to develop mental strength increases your resilience to stress and reduces the toll it takes on you both physically, and mentally. Growing stronger involves putting an end to harmful negative patterns and replacing them with healthier thoughts, behaviors, and feelings.

Everyone has the ability to increase resilience to stress. It requires hard work and dedication, but over time, you can equip yourself to handle whatever life throws your way without adverse effects to your health. Training your brain to manage stress won't just affect the quality of your life, but perhaps even the length of it.