Stress comes in all shapes and sizes: drivers who don’t use their turn signal, kids throwing temper-tantrums, an overloaded (and ever growing) inbox – just to name a few. Moreover, the same experiences that stress you out may roll off someone else’s back.

Stress isn’t always a bad thing, either. When reacting to an immediate threat, acute stress triggers the release of cortisol and adrenaline, which prepares the body to face a threat or flee from it.

With fewer real enemies in sight, chronic stress, brought on by social, financial, or emotional situations, can cause serious damage. Those same chemicals that in short bursts can save your life now suppress functions you don’t need for immediate survival, altering the mind and body.

For example, in one study of 647 women, researchers measured subjects’ stress hormones and telomere length. (Telomeres are bundles at the end chromosomes, which shorten each time the cell divides. Shorter telomeres link to a slew of age-related diseases, and once they become too short, no longer divide, or die off.) Those who were found to have above-average stress levels had slightly shorter telomeres (or DNA “youth caps”) compared to low-stress sisters.

In this group, telomere length was impacted similarly to the effects of obesity, smoking, or 10 years of aging!

Here’s a few ways stress can wreck havoc on your health:

Stress Steals Your Sleep
Still counting sheep? Chronic stress can cause hyperarousal, a physiological state that upsets the balance between sleep and wakefulness and make it hard to fall and stay asleep.

It Makes You Scatterbrained
You may be unable to focus or think straight, either at work or home. You also may find it harder to learn and retain new information; studies have linked long-term exposure to high cortisol with a shrinking of the hippocampus, the brain’s memory center.

It Makes You Crave Bad Food
Stressed and suddenly craving a burger? No, it doesn’t sound crazy. Along with insulin, cortisol and other hormones appear to be responsible for stress-related cravings for salt, sugar, and fat.

It Messes With Blood Sugar
People with type 2 diabetes may find that their blood sugar is higher when they’re stressed out. (Physical stresses, such as illness or injury, can raise blood sugar levels, too.)

It Causes Or Worsens Back Pain
When you feel like you’re under siege, every muscle in your body clenches up, including those in your neck and back. If you’re stressed all the time and those muscles stay tight, it can eventually cause major pain.

It Puts Your Heart at Risk
Under stress, the body releases inflammatory substances into the bloodstream, which can aggravate heart disease or increase the risk of heart attack or stroke. Also, under chronic stress, you may smoke, overeat, and stop working out – unhealthy behaviors that jack up the risk for blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, and heart disease.

Do these problems or pains seem all too familiar? Stay tuned for my next blog post on identifying triggers and how to get a handle on stress.