Stress is a natural physical and mental reaction to life’s experiences. 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.
It is important to understand that stress itself is not a bad thing. It is when you have continued exposure to stress, and an inability to complete the stress cycle because of the modern lives that we are all living that problems occur. If your stress response doesn’t stop firing, and these stress levels stay elevated far longer than is necessary for survival, which is longer than your body was designed to handle, it can take a toll on your health. This constant stress is called chronic stress and can cause a range of symptoms and affect your overall well-being.
Some of the effects can be seen in the image below:
Central nervous and endocrine systems
Your central nervous system (CNS) is in charge of your “fight or flight” response. In your brain, the hypothalamus gets the ball rolling, telling your adrenal glands to release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones push up your heart rate to send blood rushing to the areas that need it most in an emergency, such as your muscles, heart, and other important organs.
When the perceived fear is gone, the hypothalamus should tell all systems to go back to normal. If the CNS fails to return to normal, or if the stressor doesn’t go away, the response will continue.
Chronic stress is also a factor in behaviours such as overeating or not eating enough, alcohol or drug abuse, and social withdrawal.
Respiratory and cardiovascular systems
Stress hormones also affect your respiratory and cardiovascular systems. During the stress response, you breathe faster so that the blood that your fast heartbeat is pumping through your body is full of oxygen. If you already have a respiratory problem like asthma or emphysema, stress can make it even harder for you to breathe. This can in turn increase your anxiety even further!
With your heart pumping all of the oxygenated blood through your system, stress hormones are also causing your blood vessels to constrict and divert more oxygen to your muscles instead of to processes like digestion, so you’ll 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.
Your liver produces extra blood sugar to give you a boost of energy when you are under stress. If you’re under chronic stress, your body may not be able to keep up with this extra glucose surge. Chronic stress may increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
The rush of hormones, rapid breathing, and increased heart rate can also upset your digestive system. You’re more likely to have heartburn or acid reflux thanks to an increase in stomach acid, because the stress has caused your body not to focus on processing the food in your stomach so the acid will build up. Stress doesn’t actually cause ulcers, unlike you have probably been told, but it can increase your risk for them and cause existing ulcers to act up because of the increase in stomach acid.
Because stress affects the way food moves through your body, it can lead to diarrhoea or constipation.
As part of your natural stress response, your muscles tense up to protect themselves from injury. They tend to release again once you relax, but if you’re constantly under stress, your muscles may not get the chance to relax. Tight muscles cause headaches, back and shoulder pain, and body aches.
Sexuality and reproductive system
Stress is exhausting for both the body and mind. It’s not unusual to lose your desire if it is chronic, and this happens for a number of reasons. Chronic stress may also increase risk of infection for male reproductive organs like the prostate and testes, as well as erectile dysfunction and impotence in men.
For women, stress can affect the menstrual cycle, leading to irregular, heavier, or more painful periods. Stress has been also been linked to the onset of a subtype of PCOS due to increased androgen levels as a result of sustained stress. 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, these hormones will weaken your immune system and reduce your body’s response to foreign invaders. People under chronic stress are more susceptible to viral illnesses like the flu and the common cold, as well as other infections. It can also increase the time it takes you to recover from an illness or injury.
Your body is a beautifully designed and fine-tuned machine with an orchestra of hormones and chemicals circulating through it to keep it functioning at an optimum level.
I work with clients all over the world, and it is clear that our modern lifestyles have impeded the body’s ability to process our stress responses effectively and exposure to chronic stress causes havoc with our internal systems.
Making small changes like avoiding over commitment and taking time to truly relax can help a great deal. Many people are raised in a culture where “busy = successful” but this is not true, and it does not prove anything about your intrinsic worth. Take the time to care for your body, it is the only one you have.