Video: How Stress Affects Your Brain
When we encounter a stressor, our brain and body respond by triggering a series of chemical reactions that prepare us to engage with or run away from the stressor. Two hormones that we release are adrenaline, which prepares muscles for exertion, and cortisol, which regulates bodily functions. If a stressor is exceptionally frightening, it might cause us to freeze and become incapacitated . The stress response triggered by these two hormones causes our:
- Blood pressure to rise
- Digestive system to slow down
- Blood to clot more quickly
Thousands of years ago, people who stumbled upon a hungry saber-toothed tiger or other predator would be more likely to survive the encounter if they were able to spring up and sprint away swiftly. An increase in blood pressure and heart rate and a slowdown of digestive processes meant more energy could be directed toward escaping. If they couldnt run quickly enough, their odds of surviving a wound from the hungry tiger were better if their blood clotted rapidly.
Today, this physical response to stress, if unrelieved, can be damaging to our health. Unrelieved stress is a known risk factor in many of the leading causes of premature death among adults, including conditions and illnesses such as heart disease, hypertension, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and a poorly functioning immune system . Chronic stress is also a potential risk factor for depression, addiction, and suicide .
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.
Yoga or meditation are also an ideal way to both relax and work up a sweat. Yoga teaches you to control your breathing, which in turn can help you power through stressful situations when they arise.
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.
Is It Possible To Get Cancer From Stress Or To Die From It
While its tough to link stress directly to a specific disease, we know that stress does contribute to serious illness, says Dossett. Forty percent of cancers are preventable with changes in lifestyle. Since stress makes you more likely to smoke, drink excessively, and eat in ways that cause obesity, its fair to say that there is a link between stress and disease, she says.
Maybe its no accident that most heart attacks occur on Monday the most stressful day of the week.
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The Effects Of Chronic Stress
Your nervous system isnt very good at distinguishing between emotional and physical threats. If youre super stressed over an argument with a friend, a work deadline, or a mountain of bills, your body can react just as strongly as if youre facing a true life-or-death situation. And the more your emergency stress system is activated, the easier it becomes to trigger, making it harder to shut off.
If you tend to get stressed out frequently, like many of us in todays demanding world, your body may exist in a heightened state of stress most of the time. And that can lead to serious health problems. Chronic stress disrupts nearly every system in your body. It can suppress your immune system, upset your digestive and reproductive systems, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, and speed up the aging process. It can even rewire the brain, leaving you more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems.
Health problems caused or exacerbated by stress include:
Surprising Ways Stress Can Affect Your Body
Everyone experiences stress, but not everyone experiences it in the same way. While stress may be best known for taking a toll on the mind, sometimes physical symptoms are your bodys way of telling you that your brain is under too much stress.
Patients come in with real physical symptoms, but they arent caused by any illness, says Loretta Howitt, MD, a psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanentes Los Angeles Medical Center. Stress is the underlying problem that needs to be addressed.
Whether you have physical symptoms, mental and emotional symptoms, or both, finding healthy ways to manage stress can help you find relief.
Common physical signs of stress
Even if you dont feel frazzled, your body could be sending you subtle signs that its time to address your stress. When in doubt, talk to your doctor to rule out any physical health issues. But if these symptoms sound familiar, its possible that stress is to blame:
Dry mouth and trouble swallowing Stress can slow down the production of saliva, which can cause dry mouth and make it difficult or uncomfortable to swallow.
Hair loss Hair falls out naturally when the hair follicle moves from the growth cycle to the resting cycle. Stress can disrupt this pattern and cause more follicles to enter the resting cycle at once leading to increased, more noticeable hair loss.
Upset stomach Stress can cause gastrointestinal symptoms of all types, including abdominal pain, heartburn, nausea, diarrhea, and constipation.
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Decreased Energy And Insomnia
Chronic fatigue and can also be caused by prolonged stress.
For example, one study of 2,483 people found that fatigue was strongly associated with increased stress levels .
Stress may also disrupt sleep and cause insomnia, which can lead to low energy.
One small study found that higher levels of work-related stress were associated with increased sleepiness and restlessness at bedtime .
Another study of 2,316 participants showed that experiencing a higher number of stressful events was significantly associated with an increased risk of insomnia .
These studies show an association, but they dont account for other factors that may have played a role. Further research is needed to determine if stress can directly cause decreased energy levels.
Other factors that may play a role in decreased energy levels include dehydration, low blood sugar, a poor diet or an underactive thyroid.
Summary Stress is associated with fatigue and disruptions in sleep, which may result in decreased energy levels.
Techniques To Counter Chronic Stress
Many people are unable to find a way to put the brakes on stress. Chronic low-level stress keeps the HPA axis activated, much like a motor that is idling too high for too long. After a while, this has an effect on the body that contributes to the health problems associated with chronic stress.
Persistent epinephrine surges can damage blood vessels and arteries, increasing blood pressure and raising risk of heart attacks or strokes. Elevated cortisol levels create physiological changes that help to replenish the body’s energy stores that are depleted during the stress response. But they inadvertently contribute to the buildup of fat tissue and to weight gain. For example, cortisol increases appetite, so that people will want to eat more to obtain extra energy. It also increases storage of unused nutrients as fat.
Fortunately, people can learn techniques to counter the stress response.
Relaxation response. Dr. Herbert Benson, director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, has devoted much of his career to learning how people can counter the stress response by using a combination of approaches that elicit the relaxation response. These include deep abdominal breathing, focus on a soothing word , visualization of tranquil scenes, repetitive prayer, yoga, and tai chi.
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What Stress Does To Your Body
We face stress in our everyday lives. While some stress can be beneficial to help us focus on solving a problem, prolonged stress may have serious health implications. We may not notice it immediately, but the effects of stress can take a toll on our physical health.
Here are some physical responses and signs that we may experience in our body as an effect of prolonged stress.
Increased Sensitivity To Pain
Its well known that stress can cause physical tension, which can lead to painful headaches and neck and back pain. But stress can also affect how people experience pain, often causing an exaggerated response to an otherwise minor stimulus.
One study in children with recurring abdominal pain showed that stress reduced their tolerance for that pain, and in people with chronic pain, pain levels spike during periods of stress. Scientists think this heightened pain response might occur because stress can make the hormones that help people cope with painless effective.
Chen gives the example of a transgender patient who experienced debilitating back pain from a work injury, which resolved only after she shared her gender identity with her family.
This patient had the most profound back pain Id ever seen, and it lasted for years, with such an exaggerated pain response, Chen says. She had been hiding her transgender identity and had not been able to process that, and it was only after going through the transition that her pain completely resolved.
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Physical Aches & Pains
Studies have shown that chronic aches and pains may be associated with higher levels of stress and cortisol, also known as the stress hormone.
Your bodys muscles tend to tense up when you are stressed. This reflex action is the bodys way of guarding against injury. When the stress passes, the muscles then relax. However, when undergoing a prolonged period of stress, the muscles are unable to release this tension and may lead to body aches and pains. These aches and pains caused by stress are especially common in the shoulders, back and neck.
If stress feels too much for you to handle on your own, it may be time to seek professional help. Speak to a mental health expert discretely over the DA app and equip yourself with skills to face whatever challenges are in your way.
What Are The Signs Of Stress
When your body senses danger, it releases stress hormones that cause short-term physical changes. These changes help you to stay focused and alert until things are under control. However, if stress is constant and these changes persist, they can lead to serious problems in the long term.
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Where Might I Spot The Physical Signs Of Stress
The immune systemStress initially inhibits the immune system the chemicals our body releases to deal with immediate threat arent designed to keep us healthy long-term. People affected by chronic stress can find their immune system affected, making them susceptible to colds, flu and other infections.
The liverOur liver gives us a boost of glucose when were stressed, enabling us to physically respond to stressors. Long-term, this constant release increases our risk of developing type 2 diabetes, and can make it hard for us to maintain a healthy weight.
DigestionOur guts are surprisingly sensitive organs, and respond to hormone imbalances, stress, and many physical and mental health conditions with pain, bloating, and sometimes changes in bowel habit.
Nervous systemChronic stress affects dopamine levels, which is one of the reasons long-term stress makes us more vulnerable to mental illness. It can particularly make us seek short-term rewards like sugary, fatty or salty foods, affecting our weight and overall health.
SkinEven our skin responds to stress, with inflammation and worsening of skin conditions like acne, eczema and psoriasis.
HeadachesThe release of stress hormones can cause changes in the blood vessels around the brain, causing tension headaches and migraines.
Respiratory And Cardiovascular Systems
Stress hormones affect your respiratory and cardiovascular systems. During the stress response, you breathe faster in an effort to quickly distribute oxygen-rich blood to your body. If you already have a breathing problem like asthma or emphysema, stress can make it even harder to breathe.
Under stress, your heart also pumps faster. Stress hormones cause your blood vessels to constrict and divert more oxygen to your muscles so youll have more strength to take action. But this also raises your blood pressure.
As a result, frequent or chronic stress will make your heart work too hard for too long. When your blood pressure rises, so do your risks for having a stroke or heart attack.
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The Good News About Stress
Not all stress is bad, and the hormones that the body produces in response to stress aren’t, either. Their levels actually fluctuate throughout the day as you adapt to challenges such as waking up , getting stuck in traffic, or being surprised for your birthday.
Its also possible to manage stress by doing small things like deep breathing, taking a walk, listening to a meditation app, or even grabbing your childs fidget spinner to distract yourself from whatevers stressing you out. Any of these strategies can help short-circuit the bodys fight-or-flight response, stopping the flood of stress hormones from revving up your blood pressure and heart rate.
Shoulders Head And Jaw
The effects of stress in your body can move through the tension triangle, which includes your shoulders, head and jaw.
Stress can trigger tension headaches, tightness in the neck and jaw, and knots and spasms in your neck and shoulders, says Dr. Lang. It also may contribute to TMJ, a jaw disorder.
Ask your doctor about remedies such as stress management, counseling or anxiety-reducing medicine.
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Your Digestive System Needs Some Love
If youre experiencing stress and anxiety Im sure youre familiar with the feeling of having an anxious stomach.
There are real, scientific reasons why youre stomach feels awful. According to Healthline, The rush of hormones, rapid breathing, and increased heart rate can also upset your digestive system. Youre more likely to have heartburn or acid reflux thanks to an increase in stomach acid. Stress doesnt cause ulcers , but it can increase your risk for them and cause existing ulcers to act up.
Under chronic stress, your moods may be impacted and you may experience nausea, diarrhea, constipation, and in general, a truly awful stomach ache. For many of us under chronic stress, these feelings are happening at an alarming rate.
How to combat an overactive digestive system:
Possible Causes Of Stress
Stress affects people differently, and the things that cause stress vary from person to person.
The level of stress you are comfortable with may be higher or lower than that of other people around you. Stressful feelings typically happen when we feel we do not have the resources to manage the challenges we face.
Pressure at work, school or home, illness, or difficult or sudden life events can all lead to stress.
Some possible causes of stress are:
- our individual genes, upbringing and experiences
- difficulties in our personal lives and relationships
- big or unexpected life changes, like moving house, having a baby or starting to care for someone
- money difficulties, like debt or struggling to afford daily essentials
- health issues, either for you or someone close to you
- pregnancy and children
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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.
How Stress Affects Sleep
This infographic from Insider Living shows how stress affects sleep.
- 26% of women report trouble sleeping at least once a week compared to only 16% of men.
- 19% of individuals ages 25-64 admit to losing sleep due to stress a few nights per week.
- 54% say that stress or anxiety increased their anxiety about falling asleep at night.
- 52% of men and 42% of women reported that stress affected their ability to remain focused the next day.
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Stress Can Majorly Disrupt Sleep
Waking up every hour? Unable to fall asleep? Like J Lo, are you tossing and turning, emotions are strong? That’s a classic manifestation of stress. “Stress and anxiety work to make us more vigilant and reactive, says Alex Dimitriu, MD, a psychiatrist and the founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry and Sleep Medicine. People may feel both tired and wired, during the day, but have trouble relaxing, or are unable to nap.
Stress also makes it harder to get REM sleepaka the super restful kind that our bodies need to rechargewhich further exhausts and stresses the body. Lack of refreshing sleep, can in turn make us more impulsive and reactive, which can make stress worseas essentially it becomes harder to stop thinking about the stressor, Dr. Dimitriu says.