How Stress Affects Your Body – Let’s be honest. Not all stress is bad. Stress can be an enthusiastic motivator, like a tough coach that pushes you to step up and challenge yourself. Stress can help you perform at your best and spring into action when a fight or flight situation arises. But when stress becomes severe or chronic and leaves you feeling drained, exhausted, and just plain sick, it can be a real problem for your physical and emotional well-being. With that in mind, let’s examine how stress can harm your health.
Stress refers to the strain caused by the demands placed on us in our daily lives. Stressful events can occur at home or at work, while running errands, or when you are stuck in traffic during your commute.
How Stress Affects Your Body
You can’t avoid stress all the time, and it’s not even that bad in small doses. That might even be a good thing. But when it becomes chronic in our lives, stress begins to disrupt our physical and mental health.
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In addition to the broad concept of stress, we can experience many subtypes, and it is useful to become familiar with each of them.
This type of stress is short-lived and can be motivating or irritating. On a daily basis, you may experience acute stress due to unfortunate circumstances such as being stuck in traffic, being late for an appointment, or arriving home after curfew. Acute stress usually does not cause long-term negative effects.
When acute stress becomes more frequent—for example, it affects several days of the week—it becomes known as episodic acute stress. If you are constantly late or saying yes to too many obligations, stress becomes a nuisance. This kind of episodic stress can affect relationships with people at home or at work.
When short-term stress becomes more or less constant and intense and persists for a longer period of time, it becomes chronic stress. When your body is constantly reacting to incoming stress – ready to fight or flee – it can negatively affect your health and lead to other problems.
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Eustress is positive, beneficial stress—the kind you feel before you ride a roller coaster, go on a first date, or swim in the ocean for the first time. Eustress makes you feel confident, capable and ready for anything.
Like other animals, we humans have a built-in fight-or-flight response that helps us sense danger, determine if it’s a threat, and decide how to respond. When we perceive something in our environment as stressful, our body releases hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, which increase breathing and heart rate, slow down digestion, and tighten muscles. In other words, we are ready for fight or flight.
While the threats we face today are generally very different from our ancestors, our bodies still respond the same way. These stress responses are extremely helpful in certain situations, but if they never turn off and stress hormones are constantly ramping up, our bodies can wear out very quickly.
In fact, long-term stress takes a toll on almost every organ system in the body and can lead to even more serious problems. Fortunately, however, our body lets us know when it’s suffering, so we can take immediate action—if we pay attention. Some of these signs include:
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Stress begins to affect your health when it becomes a constant feature of your daily life. In fact, a 2015 study found that chronic stress can actually change brain pathways and throw off the immune system so much that it can’t function effectively.
Chronic stress can affect the body in the same way as an infection, increasing inflammation in tissues, muscles and organs. If this increased stress and chronic inflammation goes on long enough, certain conditions can develop. These include:
In addition, when we are under constant stress, we tend not to follow the healthiest lifestyle. For example, we may eat poorly, stop exercising, sleep less, smoke, and drink alcohol, which can actually exacerbate stress and worsen its effects.
When you are stressed, you may notice that your heart starts pounding and you start breathing faster. This is because the fight or flight hormones released in the body during stressful events cause your heart and breathing to increase, so more blood and oxygen reach your muscles.
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Your blood pressure also rises and your blood vessels constrict, both of which help deliver extra oxygen to your muscles for fight or flight. When you are under constant stress, persistently elevated stress hormones put you at increased risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
The fight-or-flight response is driven by the central nervous system (CNS), which tells the brain via the hypothalamus to tell the adrenal glands when to release cortisol and adrenaline. When the threat passes or the stress subsides, the hypothalamus gives an “all clear” and the body returns to normal. However, when stress is constant, the central nervous system never turns off the flow of hormones and the body cannot return to its relaxed state.
If you are under severe stress or feel extremely nervous, you may also experience stomach and digestive problems. This is because the surge of stress hormones, increased heart rate and increased breathing can cause problems in the digestive system.
While some sources claim that the stress response leads to an increase in stomach acid, which in turn can lead to ulcers, acid reflux, and heartburn, others point to the fact that during an acute stress response, digestion slows down, which means stomach acid production. actually decreases.
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Because of this, some scientists now theorize that stress, rather than increasing stomach acid production, actually makes the body more sensitive to smaller amounts of acid. Why would that be?
Researchers have hypothesized that stress may alter the communication between the brain and pain receptors, making them more sensitive to acid levels. Stress can also cause a decrease in prostaglandins – which normally protect the lining of the stomach from the effects of acid.
Stress can also cause frequent stomach aches, constipation and diarrhea (irritable bowel syndrome). High levels of stress can also lead to nausea and vomiting.
In addition, the researchers found a connection between high stress levels in men and an increased chance of developing diabetes.
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In the short term, physiological stress, such as stress from an injury or illness, can stimulate the immune system and help the body recover. But when stress is constant, the immune system never has time to recover, and this can reduce its ability to fight disease and infection.
Stress can even cause your immune system to attack healthy tissue, leading to autoimmune disease. And if you do get sick or injured, stress can prolong your recovery time.
As mentioned earlier, when stress hormones are released, the body sends blood and oxygen to the muscles, preparing them for fight or flight. After the stressor is gone, the body relaxes and the muscles soften. But when you’re under constant stress, your muscles never relax, and this can lead to muscle aches and tension headaches.
High levels of stress can lead to changes in sexual desire and the reproductive system in both men and women.
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In men, prolonged stress can cause erectile dysfunction and lower testosterone levels. Researchers have also discovered that stress can affect men’s chances of developing prostate cancer. In addition, studies have shown that increased stress is associated with the occurrence of prostatitis.
Several studies have also shown a link between stress levels and infertility. For example, one study found that stress reduces both sperm count and sperm quality. Another study found that women with elevated levels of an enzyme called alpha-amylase, which is linked to stress, were less likely to get pregnant than those with lower levels of the enzyme.
In women, chronic stress is also well known for its ability to alter the menstrual cycle, making periods heavier, more painful, and more irregular. Studies have also found a link between stress levels and the occurrence and severity of premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
Stress also affects the transition through menopause, exacerbating symptoms such as hot flashes and irritability. Several studies have shown a link between early menopause (before age 40) and stress.
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Perhaps most alarming is the effect of chronic stress on the brain. It is widely known that traumatic events, such as exposure to war and childhood abuse, can cause changes in the structure of the brain.
In fact, research suggests that chronic stress can increase anxiety and depression and increase the risk of developing mental health problems, including personality disorders, anger issues, bipolar disorder, and other cognitive and personality disorders.
A study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley also found that chronic stress can actually result in fewer neurons (neurons) in the brain, which may explain why stress affects learning and memory.
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