Woman stressed looking at bills

Understanding the Difference Between Good and Bad Stress

Historically, stress has been shown to have a negative effect on mental, physical and emotional health. It’s also linked to a variety of chronic conditions such as depression, anxiety and diabetes. Yet, all stress isn’t created equal. In some cases, it can be beneficial and serve a critical purpose within the body.

Different Types of Stress

The stress response is a signal to the brain and body that helps us identify psychological and physiological issues. These stressors, or stimuli, can be any life change—big or small—such as the birth of a child, loss of employment or illness. The primary forms of stress are:

  • Acute Stress: This often occurs after a traumatic event involving a serious injury, physical violation or sudden death. It can lead to emotional detachment and unhealthy coping mechanisms such as alcohol and drug use. If it persists longer than a month, it can develop into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which could last for years.
  • Chronic Stress: Chronic stress is a prolonged state that occurs when a person is exposed to a recurring stressor. This can include a high-pressure situation like a job or relationship. It can be long-lasting and less manageable, leading to serious health conditions like insomnia, high blood pressure and anxiety.
  • Eustress: Eustress is considered good stress as it can provide a burst of energy that heightens awareness. It is often referred to as the “fight or flight” response, meaning the body prepares to flee from a threat or shifts all its energy toward confronting it. Eustress can also be a motivator to get things done more efficiently. It’s a source of encouragement when faced with adversity.

Mental and Physical Effects of Stress

Stress is helpful in short bursts, but its ongoing presence can have a detrimental effect. Potential problems include:

  • Gastrointestinal Issues: The gut is often referred to as the “second brain” for the way it impacts mental and physical well-being. Chronic stress has short and long-term effects on gut health, from a less efficient immune system to a heightened risk of digestive disorders including Crohn’s Disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), constipation, diarrhea and food allergies.
  • Induced Depression/Anxiety: An anxiety disorder can occur when the symptoms of stress continue after the stressor, or perceived threat, is gone. If feelings of anxiousness or irritability become suppressed or are left unresolved, they may lead to depression.
  • Poor Heart Health: Researchers have found that chronic stress may pose a risk for heart disease. Not only can it contribute to high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, it may cause overeating and inactivity. Learning how to manage stress, while increasing laughter and happiness can lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of stroke, heart attacks and other cardiovascular problems.
  • Weight Gain: Chronic stress has been linked to biochemical changes in the body that trigger cravings, change digestion and increase appetite. Pairing the body’s natural desire for comfort foods with the convenience of processed meals is an unhealthy combination, especially under stressful circumstances.
  • Worsens Diabetes: The American Diabetes Association shares stress can cause or worsen cases of Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes by raising blood sugar levels, activating fat cells and increasing blood pressure. It also contributes to insulin resistance, making it more difficult for the pancreas to secrete the insulin hormone.

Stress Reduction Techniques

The key to managing stress is setting realistic goals and adopting a healthier lifestyle. That includes eating nutrient-rich foods and exercising regularly, which can decrease blood pressure and boost your mood. Stress management is an ongoing process that requires a full commitment. If it feels beyond one’s control, contact a primary care physician for additional treatment options.

About the Author: Dr. Kristyn Gregory, DO, is a medical director of behavioral health at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. 

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Photo credit: urbazon

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