Stress And How It Affects Your Health – Medical Review by Timothy J. Legg, PhD, PsyD – By Ann Pietrangelo – Updated March 21, 2023

Stress triggers the body’s fight-or-flight response. Chronic stress can cause negative effects on your mood, immune and digestive systems, and cardiovascular health.

Stress And How It Affects Your Health

You’re sitting in traffic, late for an important meeting, and watching the minutes tick by. Your hypothalamus, a little control tower in your brain, decides to send an order: Send out the stress hormones! These stress hormones are the same ones that trigger your body’s fight-or-flight response. Your heart is racing, your breath quickens and your muscles are ready for action. This response is designed to protect your body in an emergency by preparing you to react quickly. But when the stress response continues to activate day after day, it can put your health at serious risk.

The Effects Of Stress On Your Body

Stress is a natural physical and mental reaction to life experiences. Everyone expresses stress from time to time. Everything from everyday responsibilities like work and family to major life events like a new diagnosis, war, or the death of a loved one can cause stress. For immediate, short-term situations, stress can be good for your health. It can help you deal with potentially serious situations. Your body responds to stress by releasing hormones that speed up your heart rate and breathing and prepare your muscles to respond.

Yet, if your stress response doesn’t stop kicking in and those stress levels stay elevated much longer than necessary for survival, it can take a toll on your health. Chronic stress can cause a variety of symptoms and affect your overall well-being. Symptoms of chronic stress include:

Your central nervous system (CNS) is responsible for your fight-or-flight response. In your brain, the hypothalamus sets the ball rolling by telling your adrenal glands to release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones speed up your heart rate and direct blood to the areas that need it most in an emergency, such as your muscles, heart, and other vital organs.

When the perceived fear is gone, the hypothalamus must tell all systems to return to normal. If the CNS fails to return to normal or if the stressor does not disappear, the reaction will continue.

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How Stress Affects The Body Fact Sheet

Chronic stress is also a factor in behaviors such as overeating or undereating, alcohol or drug abuse, and social withdrawal.

Stress hormones affect the respiratory and cardiovascular systems. During the stress response, you breathe faster in an attempt to quickly distribute oxygen-rich blood throughout your body. If you already have a breathing problem such as asthma or emphysema, stress can make breathing even more difficult.

Stress also makes your heart work faster. Stress hormones cause your blood vessels to constrict and send more oxygen to your muscles, so you’ll have more energy to take action. But it also raises your blood pressure.

As a result, frequent or chronic stress will cause your heart to work too hard for too long. When your blood pressure rises, so do your risks of having a stroke or heart attack.

Identifying, Managing And Minimising Stress

When stressed, your liver produces extra blood sugar (glucose) to give you a boost of energy. If you are under chronic stress, your body may not be able to handle this extra rush of glucose. Chronic stress can increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

A surge of hormones, rapid breathing, and a racing 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. Stress doesn’t cause ulcers (a bacteria called H. pylori often does), but it can increase the risk of them and cause existing ulcers to become active.

Stress can also affect the way food moves through your body, leading to diarrhea or constipation. You may also experience nausea, vomiting or abdominal pain.

Your muscles tighten to protect themselves from injury when you’re stressed. They tend to release again after you relax, but if you’re constantly under stress, your muscles may not have a chance to relax. Tight muscles cause headaches, back and shoulder pain, and body aches. Over time, this can trigger an unhealthy cycle as you stop exercising and turn to painkillers for relief.

This Is Your Skin On Stress

Stress wears out both the body and the mind. It’s not uncommon to lose your will when you’re under constant stress. Although short-term stress can cause men to produce more of the male hormone testosterone, this effect is not long-lasting.

If the stress continues for a long time, a man’s testosterone levels can begin to drop. This can interfere with sperm production and cause erectile dysfunction or impotence. Chronic stress can also increase the risk of infection for male reproductive organs such as the prostate and testicles.

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In women, stress can affect the menstrual cycle. This can lead to irregular, heavier or more painful periods. Chronic stress can also exacerbate 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, stress 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 such as the flu and the common cold, as well as other infections. Stress can also increase the time it takes to recover from an illness or injury.

Chronic Stress Can Affect Your Health. One Activity Can Help

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Our experts are constantly monitoring the health and wellness space and we update our articles as new information becomes available. Understanding the mechanics of stress gives you the advantage of being more aware and sensitive to your own stress level and knowing when and how to take proactive steps. This increased awareness also helps you take better care of your family, friends and colleagues. Here are some facts about stress that many people don’t know:

The human body does not distinguish between BIG and small stress. Regardless of the meaning, stress affects the body in predictable ways. The typical stress response, which most of us experience dozens of times each day, begins with a cascade of 1,400 biochemical events in your body. If these reactions are not controlled, we age prematurely, our cognitive function is impaired, our energy is depleted, and we are robbed of our effectiveness and clarity.

Stress causes what brain researchers call “cortical inhibition.” The phenomenon of cortical inhibition helps explain why smart people do stupid things. Simply put, stress suppresses a small part of your brain and you cannot function at your best. When we are in coherence—a state in which we are cognitively sharp, emotionally calm, and feel and think with increased clarity—the brain, heart, and nervous system work in harmony. This state of alignment facilitates our cognitive functioning – we actually operate at peak performance mentally, emotionally and physically.

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Ways Stress Can Be Positive And Productive

We can physiologically experience stress but be mentally numb to it because we are used to it. Some have become so adapted to the daily pressures, annoyances and tedium of life that it begins to seem normal. Yet small stresses add up quickly, and we may not realize how much they damage our mental and emotional clarity and overall health until it shows up as a bad decision, overreaction, or unwanted diagnosis at the doctor’s office.

We do not need to be victims of our own emotions, thoughts and attitudes. We can control how we respond to stress and can become more sensitive to stressful situations and how they affect us before it manifests as a physical, mental or emotional complaint. There are simple, scientifically proven solutions to stress that empower people to rewire their own stress response.

The best way to manage stress is to deal with it the moment you feel it arise. Millions of Americans have unsuccessfully used the binge and purge approach when it comes to stress. They stress all day, believing they can wait until later to recover when they go to an evening yoga class, the gym, or relax when they take the day off. Unfortunately, when we put off seeking our own inner balance, our bodies have already activated the stress response and our health is what suffers.

HeartMath research shows how emotions change our heart rhythm patterns. Positive emotions create coherent heart rhythms that look like hills—it’s a smooth and orderly pattern. In contrast, negative emotions create chaotic, erratic patterns. With a heart rate monitor, you can actually see how your heart rate changes in real time as you move from stressful emotions like anger or anxiety to positive feelings like care or appreciation. Coherent heart rhythm patterns facilitate higher brain function, while negative emotions impede one’s ability to think clearly. Coherent heart rhythms also create a sense of stability and security. uses cookies to provide you with the best experience. Learn more about cookies and yours

Stress Test: Purpose, Procedure, Risks And Results

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