Do you find yourself lying awake at night, unable to turn off your worrying or anxious thoughts? If so, you’re not alone. According to a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA), 40% of Americans have difficulty sleeping due to stress.

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Feeling stressed out once in a while because of a busy week at work or a tough morning with the kids is a normal part of life. Sometimes, stress can even be a good thing as it may boost your productivity and give you the energy you need to pull through a situation. However, experiencing ongoing heavy amounts of stress can result in serious health problems. This is referred to as “chronic stress”.

What is Chronic Stress?

Chronic stress is different from acute stress, which is a natural human response to unpleasant or unpredictable situations, such as writing a test or getting into a car accident. Chronic stress, however, occurs when you’ve been repeatedly exposed to stressful situations to the point where it begins to take a toll on your mind and body.

Causes and Symptoms

Stress can occur for a variety of reasons. They include, but are not limited to:

  • Being overwhelmed at work
  • Unhappy with your job
  • Financial problems, such as being in debt
  • Death of a loved one
  • Unforeseen illness
  • Relationship issues, like divorce
  • Traumatic event
  • Major changes in your life
  • Feeling afraid or uncertain about something

When we encounter harmful or threatening situations, our body releases cortisol – the stress hormone – which causes us to exhibit various emotional and physical signs and behaviors:

  • Inability to relax
  • Easily agitated
  • Avoid others
  • Stomach problems
  • Chest pain
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Changes in appetite

Health Risks

If you are frequently stressed for long periods of time, your body produces a larger amount of cortisol than normal, which can have negative effects on your health. Untreated chronic stress can result in any one of the following health conditions:

  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Muscle pain
  • High blood pressure
  • Weakened immune system
  • Heart disease
  • Depression
  • Obesity

Chronic Stress and Cancer

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In addition to the above health risks, a recent study found that chronic stress can accelerate the spread of cancer. Research shows that adrenaline – another hormone your body produces in response to stress – causes lymphatic vessels in and around tumors to grow larger in size and number.

One of the study’s authors said that chronic stress activates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which in turn affects lymphatic function and the spread of cancer cells.

Being diagnosed with cancer is most definitely a major cause of stress. But there are ways to help you minimize the effects of chronic stress.

5 Natural Ways to Reduce Stress

1. Meditate

Meditating a few minutes a day can reduce anxiety and make you more resilient to stress. Sitting quietly with your eyes closed and focusing your mind on positive thoughts can free your mind from distractions, as well as free you from worry. Listening to nature sounds or calming music is also helpful and can enhance your meditation practice.

2. Yoga

Yoga is well-known for reducing stress. It is a step up from purely meditating as it combines breathing practices with physical poses. This mind-body practice helps you relax, is great for your health and can enhance your overall sense of well-being.

3. Breathe

Deep breathing has been known to slow down your heart rate and lower blood pressure. Taking a 2-minute break to inhale slowly through your nose and exhale through your mouth can positively impact your mood and reverse the effects of stress. When you breathe, make sure you feel it in your abdomen and work its way to the top of your head.

4. Hobbies

Hobbies are a great stress reliever. Engaging in an activity you enjoy, such as reading or cooking, can take your mind off whatever’s causing you stress while getting pleasure out of it. Participating in leisure activities is fun and freeing and has been known to lower blood pressure, waist circumference and levels of depression.

5. Exercise

When you work out, your body releases endorphins, which is a feel-good hormone. This chemical can help your mind and body combat stress by improving your mood. Exercising doesn’t have to be a high-intensity workout. It can be as simple as going for a quick walk around the block or getting up from your desk to stretch.