While almost every human being has experienced or will experience stress, only a small percentage of the population is aware that stress is contagious and can be triggered by empathy–situations like having an anxious friend or even watching a depressing TV show. These unchecked, small amounts of empathic anxiety can accumulate over time and become long-term stress, which is just as harmful to one’s health as trauma-induced stress.

Long-term stress can eventually present itself in the form of significant health problems such as heart disease, hormonal imbalance, damage to the immune system, and obesity. Other known outcomes of long-term stress include decreased nutrient absorption, elevated cholesterol, decreased oxygenation in your stomach, food sensitivity, decreased gut flora populations, loss in blood flow to the digestive system, enzyme deficiency, elevated triglycerides, and heartburn.

Additionally, a state of prolonged anxiety can cause the adrenal glands to become burdened and fatigued under the weight of too much stress. Weakness in the adrenal gland can lead to ailments like skin conditions, excessive fatigue, and damage to the immune system. Once the immune system is compromised, cancer becomes a potential risk as well due to possible cell damage and the growth of tumors.

Some studies are aimed at figuring out ways to simply “turn off” the stress switch inside the body, but most of these studies are inconclusive. In the meantime, people should consider making lifestyle choices that will help protect them from long-term elevated stress levels. Perhaps the most basic step an individual can take in order to reduce stress is to surround him or herself with others who are not persistently emanating anxiety. The more a person is surrounded by positivity, the more that same person is likely to be positive.

Another method to tackling stress is to pay stronger attention to the moment at hand. A popular technique that helps bring one into the moment is to focus on breathing or the sensory aspects of one’s environment. Also, approaching any given task as a matter of fact (“I have a job interview tomorrow”) as opposed to a potential problem (“What if I mess up the interview?”) will help keep the mind from straying in too many directions.

Yet one more strategy is to practice developing intuitive responses that allow the brain to embrace new information. Some people have internal mechanisms that digest every new piece of data as a burden. There are psychological techniques one can employ to break down some of the negative internal barriers triggering negative emotional responses.

Also, it’s more than okay to physically let emotions out in order to unburden stress from the body. For instance, crying as a form of release is arguably better than bottling in a feeling, whereas the act of crying itself will unload the body of unwanted stress chemicals.

Happiness is more than an emotion–it’s a quantifiable state that entails health on the cellular level. Making lifestyle choices that proactively decrease stress levels will not only protect the body from health problems down the road, but also boost the body’s overall vitality in just about every department.