It’s no secret that stress can wreck your emotional well-being, but chronic stress works quietly behind the scenes to wreak havoc on your physical health, too. Prolonged exposure to sources of stress can quite literally make you sick, and the effects on your body can be life-threatening if left unaddressed.
The Mechanism of Stress
Your body’s response to stress is perfectly natural, and it’s evolved over time to keep you safe. In humans and other animals, the physical response to a perceived threat is designed to get the body ready to defend itself or to get away from a dangerous situation.
The stress response first causes a reaction in the brain, where the amygdala–the part of the brain that handles decision-making, memory, and emotional responses–decides whether or not there is a threat and, if there is, alerts the hypothalamus–the part of the brain that regulates hormones–to the danger. The hypothalamus then sends signals to the rest of the body via the hormone epinephrine to trigger a “fight or flight” reaction.
The hormonal signals cause changes throughout the body, including increased blood pressure, rapid breathing, widening of important blood vessels, expansion of airways in the lungs, and release of glucose into the blood stream. These changes, in turn, increase the flow of oxygen and fuel to the muscles and help to sharpen the senses.
As a short-term reaction to danger, the stress response works very well. The stress response kept early humans safe from hungry lions. Unfortunately, modern humans are prone to perceiving a low level of threat in everyday situations over a prolonged period of time, leading to a long-term stress response that is extremely hard on the body. A frustrating daily commute, financial strain, relationship disagreements, or caring for an ailing loved one are all situations that can trigger the stress response and keep it going for weeks, months, or even years at a time.
Stress and Your Body
Even in the short term, stress can have detrimental effects on your body. Left unchecked over the course of years, however, chronic stress can lead to conditions that are extremely serious.
Short-term physical effects of stress include:
- Headaches, or other aches and pains. Changes in your circulatory system can cause distress in all areas of your body. Stress-induced muscle tension can also lead to muscular aches.
- Digestive or intestinal distress. Studies have shown that stress changes the way your gastrointestinal system processes food, and chronic stress can also cause changes in appetite.
- Insomnia or other sleep-pattern disruptions.
- Changes in sex drive.
- Increased susceptibility to infections. The stress response impedes the immune system, increasing the chance that you’ll get colds or other common infections.
Over the long term, the cumulative effect of these smaller problems can produce chronic conditions, including:
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease, heart attacks or strokes
- Diabetes, obesity or eating disorders
- Impotence or other sexual dysfunction
- Gastrointestinal conditions such as ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, or other inflammatory bowel diseases
The video below offers a discussion of how stress affects your body, as well as some tips for recognizing when you’re at risk for stress-related health problems:
Stress and Your Brain
Chronic stress is not just hard on your body; it taxes your mind, as well. Stress paves the way for emotional and mental conditions like irritability, depression, and anxiety. It also impairs your fundamental cognitive functions thanks to the changes it makes in the structure and function of your brain.
The brain-related effects of stress include:
- Memory problems. Chronic stress can make your amygdala and hippocampus less efficient and less able to produce new nerve tissue. It may even reduce the size of the hippocampus. These changes can lead to decreased spatial and verbal memory abilities.
- Learning and cognition problems. The changes in the amygdala and hippocampus can result in decreased decision-making and processing abilities, difficulty learning, and susceptibility to behavioral and mood disorders.
Aside from removing the source of your stress altogether, there are other ways that you can manage your daily stress level and reduce the impact that stress has on your body and mind.
- Physical activity. Studies have shown that physical activity helps to reduce the impact of chronic stress by improving sleep habits, reducing physical tension, and stabilizing mood.
- Relaxation activities. Activities such as meditation, yoga, breathing techniques, or massage can significantly reduce stress, but less formal pleasurable activities such as mentally-stimulating hobbies can help, too.
- Social activity. Being with friends and family in an enjoyable setting is a proven stress reducer.
- Good nutrition and sleep habits. A complete, balanced diet and an adequate amount of sleep are key in keeping your immune system strong and helping your body to resist the damaging effects of stress.
- Substance avoidance. Substances such as tobacco, alcohol, caffeine and other drugs can exacerbate the effects of stress and increase your risk of developing long-term health conditions.
- Professional help. Don’t be afraid to seek professional help when stress is a chronic problem. A therapist or counselor can give you strategies for avoiding and moderating the sources of your stress, as well as managing your response to stressful situations. Also, don’t hesitate to seek immediate medical assistance if you experience physical symptoms such as chest pain, dizziness, or shortness of breath.
Chronic stress can be a killer, but only if you let it be. You’ll never be able to eliminate all stress from your life, but with the proper management techniques and proactive strategies, you can prevent it from doing long-term harm.
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