Why stress impacts health and ways to manage it

ByJonny Harvey WLS logo
Monday, May 20, 2024
Why stress impacts health and ways to manage it
Whether at work or in our personal lives, stress impacts us all.

Whether at work or in our personal lives, stress impacts us all.

This Mental Health Awareness Month, National Geographic is launching its TAKE YOUR TIME campaign, inviting audiences to slow down and find time for themselves.

In the National Geographic June 2024 issue, contributor Yudhijit Bhattacharjee explores how stress impacts our daily lives and the latest science to understand and reduce chronic and acute stress.

High school junior Zainab Khorakiwala undergoes a functional MRI as part of a study by Harvard's Stress and Development Lab examining how everyday stress affects teens' brain development.
High school junior Zainab Khorakiwala undergoes a functional MRI for Harvard's Stress and Development Lab's study examining how everyday stress affects teens' brain development.
Photo by Brian Finke/National Geographic

ADVERSE IMPACTS OF STRESS

After largely ignoring the impacts of stress for years, scientists and experts now have a much better understanding of the science of stress and ways to cope it.

Bhattacharjee says it's crucial to deal with stress at an early age.

"Stress is so important, especially when when people are really young," Bhattacharjee said. "Chronic stress in infants can lead to deficits in attention deficits, in memory [deficits] and learning problems."

Stress can impact you at different ages. it's crucial to manage stress for babies and for young kids, but stress can impact adults in debilitating ways.

"As you get older, stress can affect your immune system, it can affect your cardiovascular health," Bhattacharjee said. "Stress is a major factor in anxiety and depression. And so unless you have tools to manage stress in your life, chances are that it will affect your health in these negative ways."

National Geographic's June 2024 issue.
National Geographic's June 2024 issue.
National Geographic

When it comes to babies and young kids, it takes a village to support youth. In general, caregivers need to be mindful about what stress they bring into the home.

Bhattacharjee suggests making sure parents and caregivers share the responsibility and burden of taking care of babies or children.

"Parents and caregivers need to have a plan so that they themselves aren't so stressed that they're passing it on to their children," he said.

For example, if one parent is taking care of the child for several hours, the other parent or caregiver needs to step in and relieve them of duties for a little while to create a less stressful environment for the baby.

Bhattacharjee says there is a big relationship between socioeconomic status and stress.

"In families that have a hard time putting meals on the table, stress is definitely much higher," he said. "There's a need to need for the community to step up and provide help."

Bhattacharjee says to look into government programs intended to help families that are struggling and help protect children from the adverse effects of stress.

CAN SCIENTISTS 'SOLVE' STRESS?

Scientists are trying to uncover the secrets of stress. So far, the only common finding is that stress harms all of us in different and powerful ways.

"Chronic stress in early life has more serious and lasting effects, because that's when a lot of connections are being laid down in the brain," says Aniko Korosi, a researcher at the University of Amsterdam.

Examining thin slices of mouse brain tissue, University of Amsterdam researchers observe abnormalities in microglia-cells whose job is to regulate the immune reaction in the brain and to keep the brain clean by removing dying neurons and other waste.
Examining thin slices of mouse brain tissue, University of Amsterdam researchers observe abnormalities in microglia-cells whose job is to regulate the immune reaction in the brain.
Photo by Brian Finke/National Geographic

Korosi has been conducting experiments on mice to elucidate the link between early-life stress and brain development. The research offers a glimpse into understanding how stress impacts not only humans, but all beings.

HOW TO COPE WITH STRESS

Experts now are highlighting meditation and other self-care activities as way to combat everyday stress.

"There are studies that show that meditation helps reduce anxiety [and] helps to reduce the risk of depression," Bhattacharjee said.

In his work, Bhattacharjee has found that those who practice meditation say they handle problems with more of a level head.

Devotees meditate at the BAPS Swaminarayan Akshardham complex in Robbinsville, New Jersey, the largest Hindu temple in the United States. More people are embracing meditative methods whose roots can be traced to Hinduism and Buddhism.
Devotees meditate at the BAPS Swaminarayan Akshardham complex in Robbinsville, New Jersey, the largest Hindu temple in the United States.
Photo by Brian Finke/National Geographic

"People who've been practicing meditation for years, they say things like they have less emotional reactivity," he said. "They're able to deal with difficult situations much better without getting hysterical, getting curious or becoming unstable."

But what if meditation isn't for you?

"Engage in the hobbies that make you happy, make an effort to carve out time for things like that," Bhattacharjee said. "I love to sing to de-stress. I sing karaoke. So music is my sort of go to activity when I'm feeling stressed."

For some people, that could be exercise, walking your dog or knitting. Any activity that makes you focus on one thing while pushing away intrusive thoughts.

The most important thing? Stay off your phone.

"All of those things involves taking your time," he said. "Find time for self-care. Engage in the hobbies that make you happy, make an effort to carve out time for things like that."

NAT GEO INVITES YOU TO 'TAKE YOUR TIME'

National Geographic is urging you to "take your time" over this mental health awareness month.

Learn about the science of stress, how meditation and other self-care remedies can help alleviate stress in National Geographic's June 2024 issue.

Go to nationalgeographic.com/magazine, where you can take the quiz to discover how stressed you really are, and if your stress level warrants a doctor's visit.