Stress is a natural physical and mental reaction to life experiences. Everyone feels stress from time to time as a response to everyday responsibilities such as work and family life to serious events such as a new diagnosis or the death of a loved one. For immediate, short-term situations, stress can be potentially beneficial to your health as it can help you cope with serious situations. Your body responds to stress by releasing hormones that increase your heart and breathing rates as well as to get your muscles ready to respond.
BUT, if your stress response doesn’t stop being triggered, and these levels stay elevated far longer than is necessary for survival, it can take a toll on your health. Chronic stress can cause a myriad of symptoms and affect your overall well-being drastically. Symptoms include:
- central nervous and endocrine system imbalances and disregulation
Your central nervous system (CNS) is in charge of your “fight or flight” response. In your brain, the hypothalamus tells your adrenal glands to release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones elevate your heartbeat and send blood to the areas that need it most in an emergency, such as your muscles, heart, and other essential organs.
When the perceived “danger” is gone, the hypothalamus ordinarily should tell all systems to go back to normal. If the CNS fails to return to normal, or if the catalyst doesn’t go away, the response will continue.
Chronic stress can also bring about behaviour such as eating disorders, alcohol or drug abuse, and social withdrawal.
Respiratory and cardiovascular system
Stress hormones also 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.
Your heart will also pump faster, and the stress hormones cause the blood vessels to constrict and divert more oxygen to the muscles. This allows for more strength incase the body needs to take action. Alongside this your blood pressure also rises.
Frequent or chronic stress will make your heart work too hard for too long and when your blood pressure rises, so does the risk for having a stroke or heart attack.
When under stress, your liver produces extra blood sugar, known as glucose, to give you a boost of energy. If you’re under chronic stress, your body may not be able to keep up with this extra glucose boost increasing your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
The surge of hormones, rapid breathing, and increased heart rate can also upset your digestive system and increase stomach acid production. This may result in heartburn or acid reflux. Stress doesn’t cause ulcers (a bacterium called H. pylori often does), but it can increase your risk for them and cause existing ulcers to flair up.
Stress can also affect the way food moves through your body, resulting in diarrhoea or constipation. You might also experience nausea, vomiting, or a stomach ache.
Stress causes our muscles to tense up in order to protect from injury. They tend to release again once the body is able to relax. If you are constantly under stress, your muscles may not get the chance to ease up. Tight muscles cause headaches, back and shoulder pain, and body aches. it this isn’t resolved, it can set off an unhealthy cycle of lack of exercise and an increased propensity to take pain medication.
Sexuality and reproductive system
Stress is exhausting for both the body and mind. and can definitely result in a lack of sex drive. While short-term stress may cause men to produce more of the male hormone testosterone, this effect doesn’t last long and if the stress continues, a man’s testosterone levels can begin to drop. This can interfere with sperm production and cause erectile dysfunction or impotence. Chronic stress may also increase risk of infection for male reproductive organs like the prostate and testes.
For women, stress can affect the menstrual cycle and can lead to irregular, heavier, or more painful periods. Chronic stress can also magnify the physical symptoms of menopause.
Stress stimulates the immune system, which can be a plus for immediate situations. This stimulation can help you avoid infections and heal wounds. But over time, stress hormones will weaken your immune system and reduce your body’s response to foreign invaders. When under chronic stress you are more susceptible to viral illnesses like the flu and the common cold, as well as other infections. Stress can also increase the time it takes you to recover from an illness or injury.