It’s really becoming a well-known fact that stress is pretty detrimental to our health.
A good doctor these days will tell you during your physical that stress lies behind many dis-ease epidemics, and that managing your stress is not only good for your mental health but your physical health as well. The last time I had a real physical, I was given the suggestion to meditate (best doc ever, right?).
Some stress is normal, even necessary to stay safe and alert to the world around you.
When you’re hiking through the woods and you encounter a bear, your sympathetic nervous system kicks in, or the part of your autonomic nervous system responsible for the fight, flight, or faint response. Your non-essential body functions, like digestion, cease to operate, and blood is pumped from your organs to the muscles in your extremities to help you move faster. Increased cortisol (the stress hormone) and adrenaline in your system help you feel hyper-alert. Your pupils dilate, your heart rate increases, and you are ready to fight (or run...or faint…)
The problem is that your nervous system doesn’t know the difference between a bear in the woods or a pissed-off boss. A boss that is a little PO’ed at you isn’t life-threatening, but your body’s systems are going to react in the same way described above to make sure that your boss doesn’t attack you like a territorial grizzly bear.
Your parasympathetic nervous system, the other half of your autonomic nervous system, is responsible for your rest-and-digest state of being, where energy restoration and healing can take place. Both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems play a vital role in carrying you through life on earth, and in a healthy human, they stay balanced on each side of their scale, each one kicking in to do its thing when needed and keeping the other balanced. This balance is known as homeostasis.
However, when the sympathetic nervous system gets overactive, particularly for extended periods of time, it’s associated with a number of diseases, including major depressive disorder, ischemic heart disease, chronic heart failure, hypertension, kidney disease, type II diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and more.
Starting from the top of your head down, here are the different ways stress affects your body.
From the head...
Increased depression and anxiety
Some stress is normal, but increased chronic stress over a prolonged period of time without proper coping techniques has been known to lead to an increased risk of depression.
Without proper coping, stress can lead to a perpetual bad mood, lower productivity, increased stress on relationships, and poor sleep, as the stress becomes overwhelming.
Stress and anxiety can lead to trouble sleeping, and subsequently, a lack of proper sleep can lead to increased levels of stress. It’s a brutal double-edged sword.
Insomnia is a common sleep disorder associated with prolonged stress. While not everybody who experiences prolonged or chronic stress develops insomnia, those with diagnosed anxiety disorders are at higher risk.
Once insomnia does take hold, people will often feel more tired or fatigued during the day, more anxious about sleeping, and therefore exacerbate the insomnia symptoms. Sleep is where a lot of our body’s healing and recovery take place, so without proper sleep, we feel worse during the day.
It can become a vicious cycle.
Stress is a common trigger for migraines and tension-type headaches. Muscles will tense up when stressed (getting you ready to run from that bear), and when the tension doesn’t release, it can refer pain into and around the head.
Stress in and of itself isn’t known to be a migraine trigger, however, according to headache expert Teri Robert, stress makes people more susceptible to their migraine triggers, so it becomes a sort of indirect cause for those that suffer from migraines.
When adrenaline is released into your system, it opens the air passages to your lungs to help you get more oxygen. For people with healthy lungs, it can cause hyperventilation. For people with asthma, COPD, emphysema, or other respiratory issues, it can trigger a flare-up.
Studies have shown stress is a common trigger for asthma attacks in kids, and it can potentially increase the frequency, duration, and intensity of attacks.
Your Heart and Blood Pressure
When you are in a stressful situation, the release of adrenaline causes your heart to pump faster and your blood pressure to rise, getting you ready to run (or fight...or faint…).
When you are dealing with chronic stress, this switch is always turned on, which ultimately leads to an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.
Stress can really throw your digestive system out of whack.
Under stress, your liver produces more sugar (glucose) to give you a boost of energy. If you are constantly under stress, your body may not be able to keep up, leading to an increased risk of type II diabetes. Your stomach acid also increases, leading to an increased risk of acid reflux and heartburn. Stress is also associated with constipation, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and stomach aches.
Your muscles will tense up in response to a threat. It’s our body’s way of preventing injury and pain. However, if the stress continues, muscles may stay in that tense, guarded state, leading to increased pain, decreased range of motion, decreased flexibility, and an increased risk of headaches and migraines.
(Massage therapy can help with this, just saying).
While a short-term stress response can help us avoid things like injury or infection, chronic stress has been linked to weakened immune systems and higher vulnerability to illness.
This meta-analysis of over 300 studies on stress and immunity backed up the idea that short-term stressors elicited beneficial changes to the immune system, however, when stress turns into a chronic thing, certain parts of the immune system are negatively affected, making you more susceptible to illness and disease.
Your lower body
When our bodies produce stress hormones like cortisol, it does so at the expense of other hormones, such as testosterone and estrogen. This happens so that our bodies can focus that hormone production on survival rather than procreation.
While a short-term stressor will cause our bodies to balance back out once the stressor has gone, chronic stress can cause this change to be longer-lasting, meaning a decreased sex drive and interference with mechanisms like ovulation, sperm count, and fertility.
That’s just the physiological side of it.
Sex can very much be a mind-body experience. When your head isn’t in the game, so to speak, it can be harder for your body to perform.
It’s a common assumption that infertility in women causes stress, but whether or not stress causes infertility hasn’t always been as clear. This study actually showed an increase in pregnancy rates after psychological intervention for women with infertility.
Multiple studies have shown that stress in men can cause decreased testosterone, decreased sperm count, decreased sperm mobility, and abnormal sperm production.
Depending on how your body handles stress, increased cortisol in your system has been linked to light, delayed, or missed periods. With chronic stress, one may go without a period for a long time.
Once pregnancy is ruled out, experts recommend seeing a doctor if you’ve had three missed or dramatically different periods.
Managing stress is essential to keeping our health and preventing all the aforementioned issues. If you’re suffering from chronic stress, or if your stress has led to other physical or mental issues, you may want to talk to a doctor or a psychologist for professional help.
Some well-known stress managing techniques include:
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