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Untreated stressors can cause physical ailments

By Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton

Student loan debt.
The job market.
Headlines.

Pick a reason, and you have found a stressor for at least one 20 or 30-something.

Millennials — adults born roughly between 1982 and 1996 — and their older siblings in Generation X are consistently identified as more stressed out than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations.

In a study published in 2018 by the American Psychological Association, participants across four generations were asked to rank their stress levels in the last month on a scale from 1 to 10 with 10 meaning “a great deal of stress.” On average, millennials self-reported their stress level at a 6, compared to 5.8 for Generation X, 4.3 for baby boomers and 3.5 among elders born prior to 1946.

Millennials’ self-reported stress rates were even higher among women and LGBTQ and disabled individuals.

Constantly staying stressed out can negatively impact the body across multiple systems.

For example, produced by the adrenal glands atop the kidneys, cortisol is one of the hormones released as part of the body’s acute stress response, or the “fight-or-flight” reaction. When released, it floods the body with glucose in order to enable larger muscles to either actively respond to a situation or evade it as quickly as possible. It also inhibits the production of insulin, which can lead to high blood sugar levels — and a higher risk for Type 2 diabetes — if a person’s cortisol levels are continuously elevated.

Cortisol also narrows the body’s arteries in an effort to facilitate an increased heart rate and get enough oxygen through the blood stream during that fight-or-flight reaction. If a person’s body is frequently coursing with cortisol, that combination of constricted arteries and high blood pressure damage blood vessels and speed up plaque buildup, thus setting the stage for a heart attack.

Stress can also impact the body’s relationship with food by inhibiting nutrient absorption, which over time, can lead to deficiencies and additional health problems.

For example, iron deficiency anemia, the world’s most common nutrient deficit, is when the body does not get enough iron to allow it to produce hemoglobin. That in turn, limits the production of red blood cells, which means less oxygen is carried throughout the body leading to faster body fatigue.

Over time, the heart’s additional burden of working harder to make up for insufficient hemoglobin can lead to cardiovascular problems, including arrhythmias and even heart failure.

Along with the potential for IBS, stress is known to either quash a person’s appetite or make it spike, potentially leading to an unhealthy diet thanks to comfort eating or binge sessions.

A Creek and Seminole resident of Oklahoma City, 35-year-old Ashley Morris is an older millennial. She describes her life as fairly stressful due to her management position at a local cellphone store. She oversees four full-time employees and one part-time worker, and with the office short-staffed by two positions, everyone is having to pick up extra slack.

“I work in sales in a commission-based environment as a store leader,” she said. “It can be stressful trying to meet monthly goals while managing a team to boot.”

Along with regularly baking gifts for friends and family, Morris handles her stress through exercise.

Multiple studies have shown that getting in 150 minutes of exercise over the course of one week improves stress levels by reducing the amount of cortisol and adrenaline in the body. It also facilitates the production and release of endorphins, a brain chemical that serves as the body’s natural mood elevator.

Along with exercise equipment, CPN’s FireLake Wellness Center offers daily aerobics classes. Similar stress-busting opportunities are available through the urban clinics in Tulsa and Oklahoma City.

However, rather than yoga or Zumba, Morris takes out her stress on an ice rink with a local curling club. She said both the exercise and the social interaction that come with curling help her decompress after a stressful day at the office.

“I’m a huge fan of team sports, and curling is definitely physically challenging,” she said. “I grew up playing softball, so anything that involves a strenuous workout is great. I’m not a runner, so when it comes to working out, it’s curling for me.”