Our brains are in constant communication with our bodies, sending messages and receiving information via electrical and chemical signals. So it's not surprising that research has shown a person's mental state can affect his or her physical state. In fact, one study found that 60 percent of visits to primary care offices were for stress-related illnesses.
Stress has been shown to play a role in a variety of medical issues, including anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, hot flashes, irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhea, chronic pain, Crohn's disease and high blood pressure.
Thanks to a study published in January by the British medical journal Lancet, we have new insight into how stress can make us sick. Researchers found that people with a lot of activity in the amygdala--a part of the brain tied to stress--were more likely to develop cardiovascular disease. The study suggests that stress can trigger both inflammation and plaque formation in the arteries. This narrows them, increasing risk of heart attack and stroke.
Short term, the hormones released when we are stressed can have positive effects, giving us extra strength, speed and stamina to cope with physically threatening situations. But when the stress response continues for too long, for example when it's caused by ongoing work or relationship challenges, those hormones start to negatively affect health.
Most of us could improve our health by taking steps to reduce stress. As Hippocrates once wrote: "The natural healing force within each one of us is the greatest force in getting well." To reduce stress in your life, follow these proven strategies.
Connect with others
Humans are social creatures, so interacting with people we enjoy is a great stress buster. It gives us a sense of security and a feeling of being liked--and loved--that is vital to our well-being. If life doesn't naturally put social interactions in your path, make plans to have dinner with a friend, grab lunch with a co-worker or volunteer in your town.
Sometimes, even time to relax with a spouse or partner needs to be planned. Staying socially connected and giving to others have both been shown to reduce stress, and ultimately will make you healthier.
Get out and exercise
It's well documented that exercise improves mood, releases endorphins, lowers stress hormones and increases your energy level. Focus on making yourself feel good. For instance, rather than working out in a crowded gym, go outside to exercise if weather permits. Appreciating the scenery and the fresh air will help to clear your mind.
If you've lost touch with friends who are important to you, ask if you can start an exercise program together. With a friend or alone, be sure to choose an activity you enjoy, whether that's walking, biking, gardening, hiking, yoga, dancing or kickboxing. Challenge yourself a little, but not so much that you dread getting started --or overdo it and risk injury.
Be sensible about sleep
Experts agree: Getting enough shuteye is one of the most important things you can do for your health. Sleep is a crucial period of rest and recuperation for both body and mind. Research shows that not getting enough can leave you drained, moody, forgetful and irritable. It also can impair your judgment and increase your blood pressure.
There's a circular relationship between stress and sleep: Stress can make it difficult to fall and stay asleep, and not sleeping enough can make you stressed. To break that cycle, create a calming bedtime routine. Take a warm bath, meditate, read a relaxing magazine or book, then turn off the lights. Imagine a place you really enjoy and let your mind travel back there.
Take a meditation break
Experts suspect that meditation brings benefits by quieting the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for our "fight-or-flight" response) and revving up the parasympathetic nervous system (which slows heart rate and breathing and improves blood flow).
The result: more day-to-day serenity. Techniques vary widely, but most involve finding a comfortable position in a quiet spot, then either focusing on your breathing or repeating a mantra. You might begin with just five minutes a day, gradually working up to 20 minutes or more.