Effects of Stress on the Body: Everything You Need to Know
Last Updated Dec 2, 2021
Close to 8.5 million Americans, nearly 3.5 percent of the adult population, report serious psychological distress. More than half, 55 percent, of the U.S. population say they are stressed during the day.
Stress can be beneficial in some cases, helping you to perform or be productive, but prolonged or chronic stress can actually make you sick. Stress, especially long-term stress, can impact nearly all of the body’s systems, having significant physical and mental effects.
Since most people are in some state of stress so much of the time, it can be difficult to recognize what stress actually is. It’s beneficial to know what stress looks like and exactly how it can impact the body, so you can learn how to manage it and better control your body’s stress response.
What Is Stress?
Stress is a response to physical, emotional, or mental tension or pressure. It is generally a reaction to a stimulus that activates the body’s fight-or-flight response.
During this time, your body prepares itself for action. Generally, your heart rate will speed up, your attention becomes focused, your muscles tense up, your blood pressure goes up, your body temperature increases, and your breathing speeds up.
Not all stress is bad. Some levels of stress are even considered beneficial. Stress can help you to focus and get things done as well as help to prevent accidents or injuries by alerting you to a potential danger.
The body is equipped to handle stress in appropriate doses. It is when stress overwhelms the body or becomes chronic that issues can arise.
Symptoms of Stress
Everyone handles and exhibits stress a little differently, so the symptoms can vary from person to person. Stress can impact every system in the body, from the ability to think clearly and emotions to behaviors and physical health.
Emotional symptoms of stress can include the following:
- Easily frustrated
- Mood swings
- Difficulty relaxing
- Poor self-esteem
- Feelings of depression, loneliness, and worthlessness
- Loss of control or feeling the need to take control
- Avoidance or isolation
- Feelings of being overwhelmed
Physical symptoms of stress can include the following:
- Insomnia or sleeping too much
- Low energy levels
- Muscle aches and tension
- Stomach upset, which can include nausea, diarrhea, and constipation
- Clenched or stiff jaw or neck
- Teeth grinding
- Loss of sexual desire
- Irregular heart rate
- Chest pain
- Cold, sweaty hands and feet
- Ringing in the ears
- Shaking or tremors
- Frequent infections or illness
- Dry mouth and difficulties swallowing
The cognitive symptoms of stress can include the following:
- Poor judgment
- Difficulties focusing
- Racing thoughts and inability to quiet the mind
Behavioral symptoms of stress can include the following:
- Substance abuse
- Social isolation
- Nervous behaviors like pacing, nail biting, or fidgeting
- Avoiding responsibilities
- Appetite changes
Effects of Long-Term Stress
Stress is a common part of everyday life, and it generally resolves when the stressor is gone. If the stressor is not resolved and continues to influence the body’s stress response, the body will be unable to manage the stress levels, and it can remain in a constant state of stress.
When stressed, the body produces the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. When the stressor is gone, the hypothalamus should tell the body to return to homeostasis. When this communication is dysfunctional, numerous health problems can arise, including metabolic disorders, chronic fatigue, immune disorders, and depression.
Chronic stress continues for weeks or months. It can have a wide range of negative effects on the brain and body, resulting in issues for both mental and physical health.
Chronic stress can cause a multitude of health problems, including these:
- Heart disease
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Menstrual problems
- Sexual dysfunction
- Skin problems, including acne or eczema
- Gastrointestinal issues, such as an irritable colon, GERD, ulcerative colitis, and gastritis
- Substance abuse and addiction
Long-term stress can also exacerbate existing or underlying physical or mental health issues. Chronic stress is a risk factor for suicidal ideations.
Stress left unchecked can wreak havoc on every single system in the body, as the body becomes overwhelmed by the stress hormones.
Stress Effects on the Respiratory System
When you are stressed, your breathing speeds up and you may feel short of breath. The airway between the nose and the lungs constricts. This can be an issue for anyone with breathing problems and pre-existing respiratory issues. Hyperventilation, or rapid breathing, caused by stress can induce a panic attack in those who are prone to panic attacks, for example.
Stress-induced breathing issues can also trigger bigger issues in those with asthma, chronic bronchitis, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), and emphysema. Acute stress can even potentially trigger an asthma attack.
How Stress Impacts the Gastrointestinal (GI) System
Neurons in the stomach are in constant communication with the brain, and the gut-brain interactions are altered due to chronic stress. This can increase the odds for developing GI disorders, including IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), IBD (inflammatory bowel disease), GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), and peptic ulcers.
Since stress impacts communication between the gut and the brain, gut discomfort, pain, and bloating are common side effects. The gut is also home to millions of bacteria. Stress can change these bacteria, which can then alter moods.
Stress can have the following impact on aspects of the GI system:
- Increase in heartburn and acid reflux
- Difficulties swallowing foods
- Increased amounts of air swallowed, leading to gassiness, bloating, or burping
- Stomach pain, bloating, nausea, or vomiting
- Decreased appetite
- Changes in how fast food moves through the body, causing either diarrhea or constipation
- Weakened intestinal barrier, which can cause gut bacteria to leak into the body
- Higher levels of stomach acids
Stress can interfere with many parts of the digestive system. When your body is stressed, the liver produces higher levels of glucose (blood sugar), which is intended to boost your energy. If the body is unable to break these higher levels of glucose down, this increases your risk for developing type 2 diabetes.
Stress, the Brain & Mental Health
When in a constant state of stress, changes can actually be made to the brain’s volume and neuronal network — the communication pathways. This can lead to mental health concerns, including depression.
High levels of stress can interfere with the brain’s natural pleasure and reward processing center. This can make it more difficult for you to feel happiness, and it can make you more prone to suicidal ideations.
Chronic stress can also increase rates of anxiety and leave you feeling overwhelmed, irritable, and out of control. Long-term stress can make it difficult to focus and concentrate. It can lead to chronic fatigue, sleep issues, changes in appetite, mood swings, substance abuse problems, tension, body pain, and excessive worry.
The Strain of Stress on the Cardiovascular System
When the stress response is activated, your heart rate speeds up and your blood pressure goes up. This can be tolerated in the short term, but when the stress response is prolonged, and your heart rate and blood pressure stay high for too long, your heart has to work very hard for a long period of time. This can increase the risk for heart attack and stroke.
The Impact of Stress on the Reproductive System & Sexual Function
Long-term stress can cause a lack of sexual desire in both men and women.
In men, chronic stress can cause a dip in testosterone levels, erectile dysfunction, and impotence. It can also interfere with sperm production. Long-term stress can increase a man’s risk for infection in the prostate or testes, the reproductive organs.
In women, chronic stress can interfere with menstruation, leading to heavier, more painful, and irregular periods. The physical symptoms of menopause in women can be exacerbated due to chronic stress.
Chronic stress can also make it more difficult for a woman to conceive. It can negatively impact the health of an unborn baby, and it can worsen the postpartum adjustment period.
Hair & Skin Issues Related to Stress
Stress can cause physical changes to the skin, leading to skin issues and conditions such as acne, psoriasis, and acne. The stress response can make your skin more sensitive and reactive, creating these potential issues and making it harder for your skin to heal.
Your skin produces more oil (sebum) during times of stress, which can lead to breakouts. Permanent hair loss is also related to chronic stress.
Stress changes the brain and body chemistry. Over time, this can have outwardly detrimental effects on the body, which can be seen in skin and hair changes.
Stress on the Muscular System
Part of the stress response is muscle tension. When you are stressed, your muscles get tight, which can cause headaches, body aches, and back and shoulder pain. This can lead to tension headaches and other chronic painful conditions.
Chronic pain can lead to additional issues related to pain, including prescription medication abuse.
The Immune System & Stress
When you are stressed, the immune system is activated as part of the fight-or-flight response. This can help to ward off infections and heal injuries.
When your body is in a chronic state of stress, however, the constant influx of stress hormones can actually weaken the immune system. This can leave you more vulnerable to infections and viral illnesses, such as the flu or a common cold. It can also take your body longer to heal from injury or illness when it is under chronic stress.
There is no way to avoid stress completely. It is actually a necessary part of life that can even be helpful. What really matters is how a person handles stress.
When stress is managed properly, long-term and chronic stress levels can be better tolerated and minimized. There are many things you can do to mitigate and manage stress, which can include the following:
- Engage in regular exercise.
- Eat a healthy and balanced diet.
- Be sure to get enough sleep each night and set a sleep schedule.
- Maintain a healthy social support network.
- Work toward a positive outlook and mindset.
- Set limits to avoid being overwhelmed.
- Consider holistic and alternative relaxation techniques, including massage therapy, yoga, mindfulness meditation, and breathing techniques.
- Use your support system when needed.
- Limit alcohol, tobacco, and substance use.
- Keep up with your health using preventative medicine, such as routine checkups, screenings, and dental appointments.
- Seek professional help when you are feeling anxious, depressed, or overwhelmed.
Stress does not have to be so overwhelming or controlling. Trained professionals, including counselors, therapists, and psychologists, can work with you to identify your personal stressors.
Using behavioral therapies, the root triggers for stress can be identified. A trained professional can work with you to develop healthy coping strategies and mechanisms for managing your stress triggers.
It is also necessary to manage any underlying conditions, mental health concerns, or health issues to limit stress and keep complications to a minimum. Many of the side effects and symptoms of stress also indicate the presence of a physical health or mental health concern that requires additional treatment or management measures.
Be sure to talk to your doctor about any symptoms you are experiencing. They can help you devise the best treatment approach to manage stress and ensure a healthier life.
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