Stress is a normal physiological response and it is in fact necessary for our survival. Stress alerts us to potential danger and it creates a surge in adrenaline that results in increased energy and greater mental clarity. It is virtually impossible to go through life without experiencing some form of stress — whether it is an impending deadline at work or a frustrating traffic jam. However, when stress is ongoing and prolonged, it can have a devastating impact on our health.
Stress is bad for your heart
When you feel stressed your adrenal glands release stress hormones, i.e. adrenaline. These hormones — of which cortisol is the primary stress hormone — travel through the blood stream wrecking havoc. They affect the heart by increasing the heart rate and raising blood pressure.
High cortisol has been linked to endothelial dysfunction—the dysfunction of the cells lining the blood vessel walls — a high risk factor for heart disease. Research shows that chronic levels of high cortisol in the blood can lead to cholesterol plaque build-up in the arteries. 
Experiencing prolonged stress results in high cortisol levels and this increases your risk of heart attack and stroke.
Stress affects your digestion
Have you ever wondered why you feel butterflies in your stomach when you feel nervous? That’s because there is a gut-brain connection. The two communicate via the sympathetic (fight or flight mode) and parasympathetic (rest and digest mode) branches of the autonomic nervous system.
When you are stressed, the sympathetic nervous system kicks into gear. This is the fight or flight response. The nervous system in your intestines activates shutting down and compromising digestion, because your body does not consider it to be a necessary function when responding to a threat. This can result in a breakdown of the intestinal lining and an imbalance in gut bacteria.
Chronic stress can lead to digestive disorders like leaky gut and irritable bowel syndrome.
Stress increases visceral belly fat
Visceral fat — known as deep belly fat — is fat that is stored further underneath the skin than the surface or “subcutaneous” belly fat. Deep belly fat is a dangerous form of fat because it is actually wrapped around major organs, including the liver, pancreas and kidneys. Stress directly contributes to visceral belly fat because cortisol (the stress hormone) affects fat distribution and it causes fat to be stored centrally-around the organs.
This dangerous form of fat does more than just sit there benignly, it actively releases immune system chemicals called cytokines which can increase your risk of heart disease and insulin resistance.
Chronic cortisol levels lead to dangerous belly fat that increases your risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Chronic stress also weakens the immune system by suppressing certain immune cells. It increases anxiety and depression and can result in acne and other inflammatory skin conditions. Unfortunately, in today’s modern world we can’t avoid all forms of stress, but we can control our response to it. This is key to avoiding chronic stress and all of its associated health problems.
Tips for reducing stress
If you know just how vital it is for your health to manage your stress levels well, you can prioritize practices and habits that help you to reduce stress.
For example, a daily practice of gratitude has been scientifically proven to reduce stress and improve immune function.
Clinical trials indicate that the practice of gratitude can have dramatic and lasting effects in a person’s life,” said Robert A. Emmons, professor of psychology at UC Davis. “It can lower blood pressure, improve immune function and facilitate more efficient sleep.”
Interestingly, studies also show that “Stress hormones like cortisol are 23 percent lower in grateful people.”
Regular exercise releases tension and stress. Mindful exercise practices like yoga and tai chi increase relaxation and promote peace of mind. Even simply taking 10 deep breaths and getting yourself grounded before responding to a stressful situation can dramatically alter the response in your body. What’s important is that you interrupt the stress response and choose a calmer approach.
Whichever practice or approach you choose, by actively managing your stress levels you will be improving your health for the better and reducing your risk of many major diseases.