5 Ways to Limit Stress's Impact on Your Health

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Upset stomach, joint pain, difficulty losing weight — these problems may seem unrelated, but they could have one common, yet surprising, cause: stress.

Stress’s impact on the body reaches further than most people realize, according to Romila “Dr. Romie” Mushtaq, M.D., a neurologist with certification in integrative medicine.

“There is a command center in the brain known as the amygdala, and under times of stress, this can wreak havoc,” she told HealthCentral in a phone interview. “That command center sends signals not only to the rest of the brain but to the entire body.”

For example, one area of the body where stress can take a toll is the digestive system, she said. In fact, stress levels are quite literally connected to digestive health: The vagus nerve acts as a link between the brain and the entire digestive tract, Dr. Romie said.

“So when we’re feeling heightened emotional stress, it directly shows up as digestive imbalance,” she said. This can lead to problems such as gas, bloating, heartburn, and alteration in bowel patterns.

Fortunately, there are several simple things you can do in moments of stress to help minimize its impact on your health. Next time you’re feeling tense, give these five tips a try:

1) Try controlled breathing: Practicing mindfulness can help combat stress in the short term and the long term. Mindfulness techniques include yoga, Tai Chi, and meditation — but it also can be as simple as taking three minutes to focus on your inhales and exhales, Dr. Romie said. Controlled breathing will help to restart the command center of the brain to lower your stress levels. In fact, practicing mindfulness is almost like a workout that builds your stress-fighting muscles, Dr. Romie said, because it “can help build our brain and our body to be more resilient against the negative effects of stress.”

2) Laugh it off: The cliché is true, Dr. Romie said — sometimes laughter is the best medicine. “Take a moment and make a silly face in the mirror, or pull up a video on social media that will make you laugh,” she said. “That tends to lighten up the mood immediately.”

3) Give yourself permission to walk away: Sometimes, removing yourself from the source of the anxiety is the answer, whether it be a permanent step away or just a break. It’s important to tell yourself that it’s OK to walk away when your own health is at stake, Dr. Romie said. “If we stay in a situation that's increasing our stress and anxiety levels, that will only further fuel stress and all the stress-related symptoms,” she said.

4) Make time to rest: “In our overstressed and overmedicated society, we’ve somehow come to this belief system that sleep is optional,” Dr. Romie said. But skipping sleep in order to accomplish every item on your to-do list can be harmful, causing or increasing the negative effects of stress on the brain and the rest of the body. “It is critical to schedule time to rest, time during the day for quiet reflection away from digital distractions and other stresses, and absolutely [for] sleep,” she said.

5) Find things to be thankful for: Taking stock of the things in your life that make you feel grateful can have a stress-reducing effect on the body. “Brain studies and psychology studies show that when we express gratitude, we stimulate the dopamine reward center of the brain and that actually calms down both the negative stress effects of both the mood and the body,” Dr. Romie said.