Stress is a natural part of our lives. It is how the body responds to agitation, threats, and demands. Some level of stress may actually be good for you as it motivates you to take action to move your life forward. It is also crucial for survival as it helps you identify danger and steer away from it. However, if your stress level is constantly high, it can be life-threatening.
Stress itself may not kill you, but it can be a powerful tool for destruction within your body. It causes a series of physiological and psychological responses that predispose you to a myriad of health issues that can be fatal.
For instance, chronic stress can significantly lower your immunity, making you susceptible to a wide range of diseases. It can also cause your mental health to deteriorate, leading to issues such as depression, suicidal thoughts, and panic attacks.
This article will take a detailed look at the effects of stress on your body and brain, symptoms of chronic stress, and how to manage your stress response for optimal wellbeing.
How Does Your Body Respond to Stress?
Stress affects all body systems, including endocrine, musculoskeletal, nervous, cardiovascular, respiratory, nervous, gastrointestinal, and reproductive.
The nervous system is the first part of the body to be affected by stress. It consists of two main divisions: the central and peripheral divisions.
The central division, also known as the central nervous system (CNS), is located in the brain and spinal cord and controls most brain and spinal cord functions.
The peripheral division, also known as the peripheral nervous system (PNS), is located in the rest of the body. It consists of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and the somatic nervous system. Stress particularly affects the ANS system.
When you experience a stressful event, the amygdala part of the brain sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is the brain’s command center, which communicates to the rest of the body through the autonomic nervous systems.
The ANS consists of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS initiates a fight-or-flight response, redirecting the body’s energy to fight or flee from the stressor.
The ANS controls involuntary body functions such as breathing, blood flow, heartbeat, dilation, and constriction of the blood vessels and the airways. Therefore, when the fight-or-flight response is initiated, breathing becomes rapid, the blood pressure increases, and your blood vessels dilate.
The other part of the ANS, the PNS, serves as a brake pedal, which initiates a rest and reset response to help calm the body after a fight-or-flight response.
The fight-or-flight response also triggers a myriad of hormonal reactions. First, the adrenal glands release adrenaline into the bloodstream. Adrenaline causes a broad range of psychological responses in the body.
For instance, it causes a faster heartbeat to enable the heart to push adequate amounts of blood to muscles and other vital organs to help you flee or fight. The airways in the lungs also open wider, causing you to breathe harder and faster to supply oxygen throughout the body and keep the brain alert. It also causes your senses to be sharper.
Adrenaline also triggers a surge of glucose and fats in the bloodstream to supply enough energy to the body. If the brain senses danger, the hypothalamus releases the corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH), which goes to the pituitary gland, and triggers the release of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH).
ACTH further travels to the adrenal glands causing the release of cortisol to keep the body revved up and on high alert. If the stress does not decline, all the levels of stress hormones stay up, keeping the body on alert for a prolonged period.
Chronic stress is a prolonged feeling of stress. It results from constant exposure to stressors and inadequacy to manage stress. Consequently, the body stays on high alert for too long, causing many health issues.
Symptoms of Chronic Stress
Chronic stress affects all aspects of your wellbeing, including psychological, physical, emotional, social, and intellectual. Some of the most common symptoms of chronic stress include:
- Decline in energy
- Aches and pains
- Difficulty sleeping
- Feeling of helplessness
- Frequent sickness
- Muscle tension
- Trouble focusing
- Lack of mental clarity
- Gastrointestinal issues
- Nervousness and anxiety
- Constantly worrying
- Feeling incapable of handling even small stressors
- Increased reliance on alcohol or drugs to cope with stress
- Low sex drive
- Excessive weight loss or weight gain
- Loss or increase in appetite
Effects of Chronic Stress
Below is a look at the most common diseases that may result from chronic stress.
The persistent surge in adrenaline can cause damage to blood vessels due to the consistently increased blood flow and pressure. Chronic stress may also cause inflammation in the circulatory system. These physiological responses increase your risk of suffering from stroke, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, or heart attack.
Diabetes and Obesity
Elevated cortisol levels cause a continued release of fat and glucose into the bloodstream, increasing the risk for diabetes, weight gain, and obesity. Furthermore, cortisol may also increase your appetite, further increasing your risk for obesity.
Aches and Pains
Chronic stress has a negative impact on your musculoskeletal system. It causes muscles to tense up as a way to stay on guard to respond to the stressor. However, if your muscles stay taut for too long, it can cause aches and pains in different parts of the body. For example, backache, tension headaches, migraines, and shoulder aches.
Asthma Attack and Respiratory Health Issues
These can result from emotional or physiological stress. For instance, if you are experiencing strong emotions due to stress, you may present respiratory issues such as shortness of breath due to constriction of the nose and lungs.
If these responses go on for long, they can exacerbate pre-existing respiratory conditions or make you susceptible to them, e.g., asthma, bronchitis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Hyperventilation and difficulty breathing can also lead to panic attacks.
Glucocorticoids play a crucial role in inflammation and immune system regulation. Stress causes the release of cortisol, which is an essential Glucocorticoid hormone for your survival when faced with danger. However, it can impair immunity system activation in excess amounts as it causes miscommunication with the HPA axis.
Compromised immunity predisposes you to numerous diseases and health issues, including infections, chronic fatigue, metabolic disorders, and immune disorders such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, celiac diseases, vitiligo, and rheumatic fever, atrophic gastritis, etc.
Stress can affect brain-gut communication causing a decline in the good gut bacteria and inhibiting the normal functioning of the various organs. Chronic stress can cause or make you susceptible to various gastrointestinal issues, including acid reflux, bloating and gassiness, vomiting, nausea, difficulty swallowing food, constipation, ulcers, diarrhea, and stomach ache.
Reproductive Health Issues
Both the male and female reproductive systems are influenced by stress. For example, chronic stress can inhibit blood flow to the reproductive organs inhibiting their functioning.
High cortisol levels inhibit testosterone production in men, leading to low libido, impotence, or erectile dysfunction. Low testosterone also affects sperm production, maturity, and mobility, making it difficult for couples to conceive.
In females, high cortisol levels can cause an imbalance in productive hormones leading to irregular, absent, or painful periods. It can also lower libido, inhibit conception, or endanger a pregnancy. It may worsen premenstrual syndrome and menopause symptoms.
How to Prevent/Manage Stress
Here are some tips to help you prevent or manage stress.
Identify the Cause of Stress
It may be easier to prevent and manage stress in your life when you know what your stressors are. Seeing as life is complex and dynamic, you are likely to be dealing with multiple stressors at a time.
In most cases, a majority of them are easy to deal with. However, a few might be constant and cause high-stress levels – those you must stay on top of.
Stressors can be broadly categorized as follows:
- Environmental, e.g., pollution, insecurity in the area you live, long hours in traffic, etc.
- Emotional, e.g., sadness, frustration, grief, anger, etc.
- Work, e.g., unemployment, unfavorable work environment, tight deadlines, unsupportive colleagues and bosses, conflict of values, entrepreneurial stress, etc.
- Childhood, e.g., parents’ mental illness, emotional or physical abuse, parental divorce, substance abuse in the family.
While you may be able to eliminate or get away from the stressor in some cases, in other cases, you have to find ways to cope and develop resilience.
There are a variety of relaxation techniques you can employ to activate a sympathetic nervous system response for rest and rejuvenation. These include yoga, meditation, prayer, ti-chi, visualization of calming sceneries, and breathing exercises. You can do them whenever you feel stressed or incorporate them into your day-to-day life to stay proactive in stress management.
These techniques can also help to reverse or manage stress-related chronic illnesses. For instance, researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital conducted a controlled trial among 112 patients with hypertension to determine if relaxation techniques were beneficial.
The participants were 55 years and older, and the randomized trial went on for 8 weeks. Half of the participants underwent relaxation response training, while the other half received general blood pressure control training.
In the first 8 weeks, half of the participants practicing relaxation techniques recorded a decline in their systolic blood pressure by more than 5mmHg. They proceeded to the next phase of the study, and 50% of them were able to eliminate at least one high blood pressure medication.
Exercises work in several ways to reduce stress. First, it momentarily takes your attention away from the stressor. It deepens your breathing and helps to relieve muscle tension. It also lowers cortisol levels and increases endorphin levels in the body.
It is important to talk to someone about it if you feel stressed, like a close friend, relative, or spouse. Simply talking about the issue can be cathartic. The other person may also help you process your thoughts and emotions or help you shift your perspective about the issue. Besides, research shows that people who are socially connected handle stress better.
Chronic stress may require professional support from a therapist, counselor, social worker, or life coach. Depending on the intensity of the stressor and the effects of stress, you may need to undergo psychotherapy or take medication to help you cope.
Take Care of Your Health
A healthy body and mind are more resilient when faced with stress. Therefore, be proactive about taking care of your health. Eat healthily. Take a diet rich in micronutrients to boost your immunity and drink adequate water. Exercise regularly and schedule some time to decompress and relax. Get enough sleep. Engage in activities that nurture your mind and spirit.
Keep a Positive Mindset
A positive mindset in the face of challenges can help you cope and overcome. It could be the only thing giving you hope and keeping your head above water. It could also help you see a different perspective of the situation to enable you to move forward rather than give up.
Remember that you cannot change the situation at times, and you have to accept and surrender to it.
Generally, our bodies handle small amounts of stress well. However, if it gets chronic, it could kill you. Although chronic stress may not kill you directly, it causes a chain reaction in the body’s various systems that can lead to life-threatening diseases.
Therefore, you must be proactive about stress management throughout your life. Prevent and eliminate stressors whenever you can. However, if you can’t, equip yourself with coping skills, resilience, and stress management skills to help you get through.