Stress Effects On The Body
Stress affects all systems of the body including the musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, nervous, and reproductive systems.
Stress effects on the body.
Our bodies are well equipped to handle stress in small doses, but when that stress becomes long-term or chronic, it can have serious effects on your body.
When the body is stressed, muscles tense up. Muscle tension is almost a reflex reaction to stressthe bodys way of guarding against injury and pain.
With sudden onset stress, the muscles tense up all at once, and then release their tension when the stress passes. causes the muscles in the body to be in a more or less constant state of guardedness. When muscles are taut and tense for long periods of time, this may trigger other reactions of the body and even promote stress-related disorders.
For example, both tension-type headache and migraine headache are associated with chronic muscle tension in the area of the shoulders, neck and head. Musculoskeletal pain in the low back and upper extremities has also been linked to stress, especially job stress.
Relaxation techniques and other stress-relieving activities and therapies have been shown to effectively reduce muscle tension, decrease the incidence of certain stress-related disorders, such as headache, and increase a sense of well-being. For those who develop chronic pain conditions, stress-relieving activities have been shown to improve mood and daily function.
Stress And Immune System Functions
The relationship between stress and the immune system has been considered for decades . The prevailing attitude between the association of stress and immune system response has been that people under stress are more likely to have an impaired immune system and, as a result, suffer from more frequent illness . Also, old anecdotes describing resistance of some people to severe disease using the power of the mind and their thought processes, has promoted this attitude . In about 200 AC, Aelius Galenus declared that melancholic women are more likely to have cancer than women who were more positive and exposed to less stress . This may be the first recorded case about the relationship between the immune system and stress. In an old study in the early 1920’s, researchers found that the activity of phagocytes in tuberculosis decreased when emotional stress was induced. In fact, it was also suggested that living with stress increases the risk of tuberculosis by suppressing the immune system . Following this study, other researchers suggested that the probability of disease appearance increases following a sudden, major, and extremely stressful life style change .
The Effects Of Stress On Your Body
Youre sitting in traffic, late for an important meeting, watching the minutes tick away. Your hypothalamus, a tiny control tower in your brain, decides to send out the order: Send in the stress hormones! These stress hormones are the same ones that trigger your bodys fight or flight response. Your heart races, your breath quickens, and your muscles ready for action. This response was designed to protect your body in an emergency by preparing you to react quickly. But when the stress response keeps firing, day after day, it could put your health at serious risk.
Stress is a natural physical and mental reaction to life experiences. Everyone expresses stress from time to time. Anything from everyday responsibilities like work and family to serious life events such as a new diagnosis, war, or the death of a loved one can trigger stress. For immediate, short-term situations, stress can be beneficial to your health. It can help you cope with potentially serious situations. Your body responds to stress by releasing hormones that increase your heart and breathing rates and ready your muscles to respond.
Yet if your stress response doesnt stop firing, and these stress levels stay elevated far longer than is necessary for survival, it can take a toll on your health. Chronic stress can cause a variety of symptoms and affect your overall well-being. Symptoms of chronic stress include:
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Finding Your Path To A Less Stressed Life
Sadly, theres no magic stress solution that works for everyone. You might have to explore several different stress management tools and techniques before you find what works best for you. Dr. Howitt suggests taking it one small, manageable step at a time. “Set achievable goals, she explains. “Small changes can make a meaningful difference in how you experience stress both mentally and physically.”
Practicing self-care is always a good idea, but some people need more support. If something still doesnt feel right or you have questions about how to manage stress in positive ways talk to your doctor.
1 Kathrin Wunsch et al., Habitual and Acute Exercise Effects on Salivary Biomarkers in Response to Psychosocial Stress, Psychoneuroendocrinology, August 2019.
2 MaryCarol R. Hunter et al., Urban Nature Experiences Reduce Stress in the Context of Daily Life Based on Salivary Biomarkers, Frontiers in Psychology, April 4, 2019.
3 Madhav Goyal et al., Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-Being: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis, JAMA Internal Medicine, March 2014.
4 Brian Chin et al., Psychological Mechanisms Driving Stress Resilience in Mindfulness Training: A Randomized Controlled Trial, Health Psychology, August 2019.
5 Getting Creative Really Does Boost Your Mood, Survey Suggests, BBC News, May 8, 2019.
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All of these outcomes and impacts of short-term stress have been known for decades. But, perhaps the more critical concern is the impact of chronic stress on our ability to think clearly and make good decisions. Stress hormones have a negative impact on the part of our brain that we need for:
- Evaluating alternatives and making good business decisions
- Having productive and thoughtful conversations with our family members, community members and others whose help we might need as we move forward during challenging times
These physical health, brain function, and decision making impairments often create a vicious cycle. When we find it difficult to make well-thought-through decisions and to move forward, sometimes this can lead to choices that might have less than desirable outcomes. A poorly contemplated decision can cause even more stress which further fuels this response. This cycle can lead to feelings of hopelessness, anxiety and other concerns, which then in turn may also be connected to depression and the risk of suicide. Fortunately, all these changes that occur under high stress can be managed and reversed, though it takes multiple tactics and strategies to tackle the issue holistically.
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The stress doesnt have to be major to do it: Frederick Chen, MD, chief of family medicine at Harborview Medical Center and professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine, says even small stressors aggravating emails, subtweets have an effect.
The small stresses of everyday life can cause daily, low-level stress that activates stress hormones in the body, which ultimately affects how people feel, he says. The interesting thing is that we dont always know why people respond in the way they do.
Often, a long-term build-up of these minor stresses when the body doesnt go back to normal causes people to experience weird symptoms. Acute stress tends not to have an effect on health, says Sharon Bergquist, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine. Its the activation of chronic stress when people dont go back to their baseline of rest and recovery, that tends to affect people.
Here are some of the most unusual things stress can cause in the body:
Ways To Manage Stress
The easiest way to manage stress is to immerse yourself in activities that reduce anxiety-provoking thoughts and feelings.
For starters, incorporate regular exercise into your weekly routine. This can be as simple as taking a stroll around your neighborhood. Disconnecting from the world and your smartphone can do wonders for your state of mind.
Focus on activities and hobbies you enjoy. Read a book at night if youre into novels. Listen to your favorite artist while you cook if youre a fan of music. Play with your dog if animals help soothe your mood. Everyone has their own way of resetting their emotions. Find what works best for you.
You can also add positive affirmations, or positive self-talk, to your routine. Take a piece of paper and write down personal statements you can think about or say aloud several times a day. As an example, you may say Today will be a good day. I will focus on the things I can control and wont stress about the things I cant control.
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It Hurts Heart Health
Stress can put a lot of pressure on the heart when youre stressed, your heart pumps harder to distribute blood to make sure youre prepared to deal with threats, and that can cause long-term damage over time. Stress can cause high blood pressure and heartbeat irregularities, Dr. Ross tells Bustle. Being stressed is a risk factor for poorer heart health overall, with stressed people more likely to show symptoms of cardiovascular disease, heart attacks, and other heart issues over the course of their lifetimes. A study published in Circulation in 2019 also found that race plays a role in the relationship between stress and heart health in women over the course of their lives.
Recognising Your Stress Triggers
If youre not sure whats causing your stress, keep a diary and make a note of stressful episodes for two-to-four weeks. Then review it to spot the triggers.
Things you might want to write down include:
- the date, time and place of a stressful episode
- what you were doing
You can use the diary to:
- work out what triggers your stress
- work out how you operate under pressure
- develop better coping mechanisms
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Stress And Mental Health
Chronic stress is incredibly closely linked with our risk of serious mental health conditions, and chronic stress, anxiety, and depression are closely related. Over time, chronic stress can make you more susceptible to mental and emotional illness. Some people find coping strategies that can actually make us more unwell smoking and drinking alcohol are common ways people try to handle stress.
Finding healthy coping strategies for stress isnt always easy, but its really important, says Dr McClymont. Exercise, mindfulness and talking therapies are excellent ways of dealing with stress. If you find yourself turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms like alcohol or smoking, then be open about this with a doctor.
Hair Loss And Prematurely Graying Hair
Yufang Lin, MD, an integrative medicine physician at Cleveland Clinic, says stress can cause a temporary condition called telogen effluvium, which stops hair follicles from growing. This can lead hair strands to fall out more easily over time, often when someone is washing or brushing their hair. Usually, the hair will start growing back once the stressful period ends, Lin says.
Chronic stress can also cause people to lose pigment in their hair, resulting in premature graying, according to Chen. You see this often with our elected officials over time you can see that the level of work and constantly being on has an effect on people, he says.
Scientists recently uncovered a potential mechanism explaining why stress induces premature graying. Researchers found that the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the fight-or-flight response, can affect the stem cells responsible for hair pigment. Sympathetic nerves that extend into the hair follicles release stress hormones, causing pigment-related stem cells to leave the hair follicle. Without those cells, no new pigment cells can be made so all new hair becomes gray.
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Stress And The Function Of The Cardiovascular System
The existence of a positive association between stress and cardiovascular disease has been verified . Stress, whether acute or chronic, has a deleterious effect on the function of the cardiovascular system . The effects of stress on the cardiovascular system are not only stimulatory, but also inhibitory in nature . It can be postulated that stress causes autonomic nervous system activation and indirectly affects the function of the cardiovascular system . If these effects occur upon activation of the sympathetic nervous system, then it mainly results in an increase in heart rate, strength of contraction, vasodilation in the arteries of skeletal muscles, a narrowing of the veins, contraction of the arteries in the spleen and kidneys, and decreased sodium excretion by the kidneys . Sometimes, stress activates the parasympathetic nervous system . Specifically, if it leads to stimulation of the limbic system, it results in a decrease, or even a total stopping of the heart-beat, decreased contractility, reduction in the guidance of impulses by the heart stimulus-transmission network, peripheral vasodilatation, and a decline in blood pressure . Finally, stress can modulate vascular endothelial cell function and increase the risk of thrombosis and ischemia, as well as increase platelet aggregation .
How Does Stress Affect The Body: A Breakdown By System
It’s going to be a busy day at work, but you’re stuck in traffic. Inching along the highway, you have an upset stomach. You feel your blood pressure rise as you think about how you’ll be late for work.
You try deep breathing exercises and other stress management techniques, but nothing’s working. Then you might wonder, “How does stress affect the body?” since you’re experiencing it right now.
Stressful situations give your entire body trouble, and current events dont help. A 2022 survey by the American Psychological Association found that 81% of Americans say global uncertainty is a significant source of stress. And large amounts of stress come with a list of adverse health effects.
But today, we’ll explain how stress impacts the body when you’re awake and asleep, along with some tips on how to combat it.
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Immune And Reproductive Systems
Research has shown the negative effect stress can have on the immune system. In short bursts, the stress hormone cortisol can boost immunity by limiting inflammation, but over longer periods of time, too much cortisol can lead to more inflammation.
Stress can also affect the immune system because it can reduce the effectiveness of white blood cells, which fight off viruses and bacteria.
The release of stress hormones also impacts the reproductive system. Cortisol affects how much oestrogen and progesterone your body makes, which regulates your menstrual cycle. If you’re stressed and have increased levels of cortisol, it can lead to irregular periods.
Job Loss And Unemployment Stress
Losing a job is one of lifes most stressful experiences. Its normal to feel angry, hurt, or depressed, grieve for all that youve lost, or feel anxious about what the future holds. Job loss and unemployment involves a lot of change all at once, which can rock your sense of purpose and self-esteem. While the stress can seem overwhelming, there are many steps you can take to come out of this difficult period stronger, more resilient, and with a renewed sense of purpose.
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Should I Get A Stress Test
A stress test doesnt measure the stress in your life, but it does measure the stress on your heart, or rather how hard your heart is working and what it looks like when youre walking very fast on a steep incline on a treadmill. People usually get a stress test when they have multiple risk factors for heart disease, or if theyve been having certain symptoms like chest pain or palpitations, says Haythe.
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Stress affects your digestive tract. The gastrointestinal tract is filled with nerve endings and immune cells, all of which are affected by stress hormones, says Dr. Dossett. As a result, stress can cause acid reflux as well as exacerbate symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease. Not to mention create butterflies in your stomach.
Stress messes with your immune system. A number of studies shows that stress lowers immunity, which may be why youre likely to come down with a cold after a crunch time at school or work right on the first day of your vacation. Patients with autoimmune disorders often say they get flare-ups during or after stressful events, or tell me that their condition began after a particularly stressful event, says Dossett.
Stress can muddle your brain. Brain scans of people with post-traumatic stress disorder show more activity in the amygdala, a brain region associated with fear and emotion, says Haythe. But even everyday kinds of stress can affect how the brain processes information.
We see actual structural, functional, and connectivity-related brain changes in people who are under chronic stress, adds Gupta. All of these can affect cognition and attention, which is why you may find it hard to focus or learn new things when you are stressed.
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When To See The Doctor For Stress
Over time, stress can have a major impact on your physical or mental health. If you have tried to manage your stress on your own but are still struggling, reach out to your doctor. They may be able to offer more techniques or refer you to a mental health counselor for additional support.