For many people (us geeks included), stress is more of an annoyance than a major health issue. “Suck it up,” we tell ourselves. “Get over it,” we say. For my fellow freelancers, it probably sounds more like, “Stress goes along with freelancing. If I want to do this for a living, I’ll just have to put up with it. And I don’t have time to do anything about it.”
You probably don’t stop to think about what chronic stress is doing to your body. You may think it’s all in your head, but the truth is that stress can cause illnesses and other nasty things in your body. These physical effects of stress range from the annoying…to the potentially life threatening.
If you already suffer from skin conditions such as acne or eczema, stress can cause flare-ups or otherwise aggravate the problem. It can also cause skin rashes or other skin issues — and stress may not be the first thing your physician thinks of when trying to diagnose these problems. This can lead to long-term skin irritation with no known cause and ineffective treatments, which in turn lead to…more stress.
Tension Headaches and Muscle Pain
When we’re stressed, we tend to tense up, especially through the shoulders and back. This tension leads to headaches and muscular pain in the back, shoulder, and neck. This can seriously cramp your gaming style, and is aggravated by long hours hunched in front of a computer — which is a problem when you make your living that way.
Stress can also aggravate existing problems such as fibromyalgia, carpal tunnel and other repetitive injuries, and back problems like herniated discs. And if you are prone to migraines, stress can bring on an attack, or make it worse — putting you down for days at a time.
Lowered Immune Response
Your immune system can be suppressed by chronic stress. This lowered immune response makes it harder to fight off infections, and may aggravate allergies and autoimmune conditions such as arthritis. Stress can also slow your recovery from illnesses you do catch.
Dangerous for its lack of outward symptoms, high blood pressure increases your risk of heart attack and stroke. Short-term stress is known to increase your blood pressure for a short time. Chronic stress may lead to permanently higher blood pressure.
If your family has hypertension, stroke, or heart problems in its history, you need to see your doctor regularly. This is even more critical if you’re also suffering from stress.
If you have chronic stress and tend to be more reactive to it than other people (translation: stress makes you lose your cool in a big way), you could be raising your risk for heart disease. This risk has especially been linked to people who are extremely competitive, impatient, or hostile — with hostility topping the list of personality traits associated with heart problems. Stress can also drive you to your favorite comfort foods, which are usually high-fat, high-salt, and high-sugar. You may recognize all of these things as being on your heart’s “Stop doing this to me, stupid!” list. (Your heart takes to name-calling when it’s distressed. One more reason to watch your stress levels.)
The Solution: Lower Your Stress
Yes, I know — easier said than done. But there are things you can do, right now, to lower your overall stress level. We’ll get into more of them in coming weeks, but for now, here are a few things you can try:
- Talk therapy. Don’t worry — you don’t have to have a psychologist on hand to help you with this one. Talking out your worries with someone you trust (and who is a calm and soothing presence) acts as an instant stress reliever. And, as an added bonus, the extra set of ears may help you find a solution to some of your stressors. If you absolutely can’t talk to someone, journaling may also provide some relief.
- Breathe. Paying attention to your breathing, and taking full, slow breaths, can help slow your spiral into a stress-related meltdown. This technique has the added bonus of being portable — you can practice proper, calm breathing anywhere, even during a meeting or stressful phone call.
- Take a walk. You may be convinced you don’t have time during the day to step away from your desk, but look at it this way: Stress can severely impair productivity. The longer you remain stressed, the worse your productivity gets — and the less you get done, the more your stress rises. It can quickly turn into a deadly cycle.
You don’t have to take a long walk if you’re busy — even five or ten minutes out in the fresh air can do wonders. You may be surprised to find that you start getting more done on the days you give yourself a short break or two, than on days when you try to grind through.