Is stress harmful to your health?

Dr. Sandra Parawira-Chaza shines a light on this often difficult principle through the story of a seemingly normal woman struggling with stress.

Meet Norma, a 42 year old financial executive, wife of 13 years, and mom of 3 children. From the outside looking in, Norma seems to have the perfect life, living the dream. At only 42, she has managed to climb the corporate ladder to become the youngest female executive at a reputable wealth management firm. She is married to John the love of her life, who is also a busy professional and they have scored their dream house in the suburbs with a great school district for their children who are all heavily involved in academic and athletic activities.

Tonight is no difference from any other night. Finally home after another busy day at the office, followed by an equally busy evening playing the role of soccer mom. With the children all in bed, Norma has a minute to look back at everything accomplished today which unfortunately, seems overshadowed by what still needs to be checked off on her to-do list. Invariably, by this time, she has exhausted her energy reserves and. What is most clear to her is that she has nothing left to give. She finally makes it to bed a few minutes short of midnight, in the hopes that she will quickly fall into a deep oblivious sleep for the few short hours remaining, just so that she can wake up again tomorrow and repeat this cycle which, unbeknownst to her has become detrimental to her health.

Her nagging symptoms

Oddly enough, most nights, despite overwhelming fatigue, Norma is unable to fall asleep immediately. Her exhausted body that has long given out is betrayed by her overworked mind, still fixated on the tasks that slipped the cracks today, the final draft of tomorrow’s presentation that she forgot to save to a flash drive, her daughter’s overdue vaccination records that the school has sent a reminder about, this is also the time when she remembers that she is yet to schedule her long overdue yearly visit with her Primary Care Physician. She makes a mental note to call and make that appointment as soon as possible to discuss a few things she has been concerned about lately, the recent weight gain, overwhelming fatigue, insomnia, headaches, and focus difficulties. She realizes one thing as she dozes off, her Type A over achieving personality which has served her well professionally is now choking her alive. Although she seemingly has it together, this has all become a façade of keeping it together at the expense of her wellbeing.

Norma’s reality echoes the sentiments of many women who are juggling different roles and the overall demands of our modern day life. We are all too familiar with the daily pressures exerted on us which are seemingly never ending, with overwhelming pressure from every direction. Many of us feel a lot like Norma and if we cannot figure out a way to manage and alleviate our very high levels of stress, we could end up with major problems. This leads us to the burning question: – Is the stress from our relentless schedules harming our health?

Physiology of Stress:

To answer this question, it is essential to breakdown the physiology of stress. Stress goes beyond just our personal perception of feeling overwhelmed. Our bodies are primitively wired to respond and withstand a great amount of stress for short periods of time. Once we encounter stress, our bodies respond through a complex process which involves transmission of the stress signal through neuronal pathways resulting in a cascade of events which terminates with the release of what we commonly refer to as stress hormones, primarily Cortisol and Adrenaline also known as Epinephrine.


In the setting of acute stress, Cortisol and Adrenaline are released in large amounts into the body in order to enhance what the body perceives as the functions necessary to handle a “fight or flight” situation. Simply put these hormones ready the body to face the perceived threat by increasing heart rate, increasing blood pressure, and increasing blood glucose in an effort to increase energy production. In that situation other functions that are not essential to fight, slow down temporarily; this includes, the immune system and the gastric system amongst others. This response is essential and allows the body to withstand transient stress. Once the stressful situation passes our bodies revert to their normal states. This is the normal physiologically healthy stress response.

Unfortunately the pressures most of us face tend to be persistent; arising from everyday expectations and never ending commitments, which ultimately result in chronic stress. Our bodies do not have the ability to separate acute stress from chronic stress. The same pathway which is activated in acute stress is activated in chronic stress. The difference, however, is that in persistent stress, this process never reaches a point of deactivation as you would see with transient stress, therefore in chronic stress, the same hormones; Cortisol and Adrenaline are now circulating in large amounts all the time. This is primarily where the problem lies. Persistent high levels of these hormones, especially Cortisol can affect many areas of your health. Cortisol is implicated in weight gain, sleep disorders, fatigue, headaches, focus difficulties, decline in mental acuity, as well as mood imbalances. It can affect your body’s ability to fight infection and impair the ability to control blood glucose levels. This answers our burning question; chronic stress is indeed harmful to our health and ultimately increases our risk for Diabetes, Hypertension, and Heart disease, amongst other things.

Relieving the stress

As women we are wired to be nurturing and as a result we give so much of ourselves and we take care of everyone else’s needs but our own. Therefore, relieving the stress is easier said than done. For most of us, the majority of stress inducers that we are dealing with are probably not going away in the foreseeable future. However we can relieve some of the stress by adding a few self-serving activities to our daily lives

Learn to say no

One of the things I have struggled with in my personal life is saying no, I find myself taking on commitment after commitment and then realizing later that I have a scheduling conflict. It has taken a lot of maturity for me to realize that; saying no does not make me an uncaring friend, saying no to going to one of my daughter’s Volleyball games does not make me a negligent parent, refusing to take on another project does not make me an unwilling associate. This just means I am learning to draw the line, I am learning to set healthy boundaries, I am preserving my sanity, and most vitally, I am acknowledging that I cannot take on everything that comes my way and remain fully engaged.

Identify an activity or hobby that you enjoy

Even if it is for a few minutes carve a little time for you every day. I encourage you, for those few minutes be selfish; reward yourself with something that you really enjoy, be it reading, writing, painting, playing the piano listening to some cheesy 80’s music, taking a long bath, praying, meditating, soaking up a little sun, smelling the roses, or whatever else gives you joy without serving someone else. For those 30 minutes you can lose yourself in the things you enjoy while helping your body to destress. Every once in a while get your nails done, let your hair down, go shopping, or have coffee with a good friend. Finally but probably most importantly, you need to make the time to include a workout routine, as this can reduce your stress levels and can also have a counter effect on some of the negative long term effects of stress.

The best compass to every situation

Finally, I would not be true to my Kingdom heritage if I did not share what has been a constant reassurance in my personal life. As I battle these 21st Century pressures that have become deeply intertwined and synonymous with my existence, I am highly privileged to have access to what I have found to be the best compass to every situation in my life which is The Word of God my Father, which reminds me even in this situation, that I do not have to deal with this alone. MT

“Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30

About the Author:

Dr. Sandra Parawira-Chaza, DNP, AGACNP-BC.


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