Stress is a healthy, natural physical and emotional response to everyday experiences.
Many people struggle under the pressure of responsibilities at home, work, or school. Serious life events like a divorce, the loss of a loved one, or the diagnosis of a health condition are also common triggers for stress.
In the immediate short-term, stress is often beneficial for your health, strengthening your ability to cope in potentially dangerous or challenging situations. In response to stress, your body produces hormones that activate physiological changes.
Resultantly, your breathing and heartrates increase, priming your muscles to respond more efficiently on-demand.Regrettably, if this stress response is not effectively decommissioned, your stress levels will stay elevated for much longer than survival dictates. When chronic stress manifests, this can place a heavy burden on both physical and mental health.
An unchecked stress response can trigger a battery of physical health effects. Some of the most common can be grouped in terms of their effects on the following body systems:
- Immune system
- Digestive system
- Central nervous and endocrine systems
- Muscular system
The fact that stress stimulates your immune system can be beneficial in the short-term – by healing wounds and by helping you stave off infections, for instance.
Over time, though, stress hormones will reduce your body’s response to foreign objects by weakening your immune system.
As an example, people experiencing chronic stress are more prone to viral infections like the common cold, flu, or covid.
Beyond this, stress can also increase recovery times after injury or illness.
When your body is under stress, your liver starts producing more blood sugar in the form of glucose. This serves to boost your energy levels.
People experiencing chronic stress may be unable to cope with this surge of surplus glucose. In some cases, chronic stress can play a part in the development of type-2 diabetes.
The resulting uptick in breathing and heart rate combined with this rush of hormones can cause digestive upsets. You are more likely to have acid reflux (heartburn) due to an increase in stomach acid associated with stress.
While stress does not directly cause ulcers, it can raise your risk of developing a stomach ulcer over time and can also inflame existing ulcers.
Stress also commonly induces both constipation and diarrhea, and can also cause stomach aches, vomiting, and nausea, wreaking havoc on your digestive system.
The fight or flight response hardwired into your body is governed by your CNS (central nervous system).
This response initiates in the hypothalamus area of the brain where your adrenal glands are instructed to release cortisol and adrenaline, the stress hormones. When released, these hormones speed up your heartbeat then send blood surging to the heart, muscles, and other key organs.
Typically, the hypothalamus will instruct body systems to revert to normal once the perceived threat is gone. Sometimes, though, the stressor does not go away, and something the CNS fails to return to normal functioning.
Chronic stress is implicated in both alcohol use disorder and substance use disorder, eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia, and social withdrawal.
When your body is stressed, your muscles instinctively tense as a safeguard against injury. Although the muscles should release as soon as you relax, those under continual stress may find their muscles don’t get the chance to recuperate. These tight muscles can trigger back pain, shoulder pain, body aches, and headaches.
When this occurs, it can sometimes lead to a vicious cycle where you stop exercising, potentially turning to pain medication instead. Take action to avoid stress before you end up addicted to opioid painkillers and looking for a Seal Beach rehab.
Some people find that chronic stress increases the risk of anxiety and depression. The
mechanisms linking stress and mental health are still not fully understood.
Researchers know that the earliest stress response occurs in the brain within seconds of a stressor being perceived. Neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) like adrenaline and serotonin are released. Next, stress hormones are released, impacting the brain areas responsible for emotional regulation and memory. Sustained stress permanently impairs the functioning of these systems when triggered by stress.
Ongoing research points to a possible biochemical link between mental health and stress, and also the potential increase in risk profile for mental illness experienced by those under chronic stress.
Many people under stress demonstrate the following outward markers of mild anxiety:
- Tapping feet
- Biting fingernails
Some people, though, find an excess of stress hormones causes the following more severe symptoms of anxiety:
- Racing heartbeat
- Sweating palms
- Feeling of helplessness
- Sense of impending doom
Additionally, thought patterns prompting stress and depression can also heighten your vulnerability to feelings of acute anxiety.
In the event of an overactive or extended stress response, the high levels of stress hormones leave high volumes of sedative by-products, sometimes contributing to feelings of depression or low energy.
While chronic stress does not cause depression, if you fail to respond to stress healthily, it could increase your risk of developing major depressive disorder.
Over time, a high volume of stress hormones can change the way some elements of the CNS operate and can even induce structural changes to the central nervous system. This leads to many people with chronic stress experiencing problems in the following areas:
- Learning new information