You probably realize stress affects your body not just mentally but physically too. After all, who isn’t familiar with the exhaustion and aches and pains after an especially trying day at work? Or the dull headache, pain in the chest, or back pain from weeks of multitasking at home or on the job. When you are going through a stressful time, the effects can show up instantly. But what about chronic stress? For those with long-term stress, there can be some long-term and lasting problems and health issues that crop up as a result of this ever-present stress.
Your Body’s Stress Response Is Important
Your body experiences stress on a daily basis in different situations and responding to this through changes is a normal and healthy process. In fact, your stress response is what helps you cope with a challenging task. It enables you to survive in potentially life-threatening situations via your fight or flight response. Unfortunately, unlike acute stress which lasts only for a short period of time and after which your body returns to normal, chronic or long-lasting stress can be more detrimental to your health.
Chronic Stress Adversely Impacts Multiple Systems In Your Body
In one survey of people in leadership positions, the Harvard Business Review team found that 84% of respondents said they experienced regular stress and half said it adversely impacted their effectiveness at work too. 25% felt it actually helped them do better at their jobs.1 While some people thrive on such stress mentally, it can still be physically demanding on your body and will eventually take its toll on your health. What we do know is that chronic stress does adversely impact the functioning of your central nervous system and neuroendocrine system, and also has fallout for your cardiovascular and immune health.2 In the next section, you’ll find the many ways in which your body reacts to such stress.
Your Body’s Reaction To Stress: An Inside View
Whether it is short-term acute or long-term stress, your body reacts by initiating certain changes. This is what goes on inside you when you encounter stress:3
- Your nervous system stimulates the release of fight or flight hormone adrenaline as well as stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine. This raises heartbeat and blood pressure and affects digestion and use of glucose.
- Your liver produces more glucose for energy to support that fight or flight.
- You breathe faster. This rapid breathing may translate to hyperventilation or panic attacks. Your muscles tense up.
- Your heart rates increases, heart muscles contract more strongly, and blood vessels dilate to pump more blood to larger muscles and the heart.
1. Anxiety And Depression
Stress takes an emotional and mental toll on your body and this could translate to a mental health problem like anxiety or depression for some. Research has shown that prolonged exposure to cortisol, the stress hormone, can result in depressive symptoms. It may also cause your anxiety levels to be elevated in general and bring on mood disorders. If the stress is constant or recurrent, an existing mood disorder like depression can progress faster or worsen in general.4
It is important to note that stress alone is usually not enough to bring on depression in a person. Whether or not the stress in your life triggers depression will depend on things like your genetic predisposition – that is, whether anyone has depression in your close family; environmental factors like your support system; and whether or not you have any existing medical condition that could make you vulnerable to depression – for instance, coping with chronic pain or chronic disease).5
It isn’t unheard of to lose sleep over a stressful situation. But when you’re living with stress on a daily basis, your mind might continue whirring into the night as you mull over problems, try and process or deal with issues or challenges, or find yourself worried or anxious because of the stress. If you’ve already got an anxiety issue or depression, chances are that is costing you sleep too. What makes things worse it that losing sleep makes the anxiety and stress even greater than before. Research by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America found that most adults with a stress-related sleeping problem have an episode of problematic sleep at least once a week. Over 50% have multiple nights of lost and disturbed sleep.6
3. Weakened Immune System
Lab studies have found that exposing test subjects to stress even for short bursts of a few minutes caused some weakening of the immune system. But when that stress went on for a few days or extended into months and years, overall immunity suffered badly.7
Researchers suggest that the functioning and modulation of the body’s immune system is also affected by psychosocial factors like your mood and behavior and how they change. Constant stress can suppress the body’s natural immune defense, reduce lymphocytes (the defensive white blood cells of the lymphatic system), and cause an increase in viral activity as well as inflammation.8
4. Higher Risk Of Hypertension And Heart Problems
When you’re constantly experiencing stress, you might start to notice chest pain or heart palpitations.9 Chronic stress can impact your blood vessels and heart adversely, elevating your risk of developing hypertension or high blood pressure, having a stroke, or even a heart attack. Such chronic stress may also worsen inflammation in your coronary arteries and cause your cholesterol levels to go awry.
Women are offered some degree of protection when they’re pre-menopausal due to higher estrogen levels which allow blood vessels and the body to cope better with stress. However, after menopause, women can become more susceptible to stress-linked heart disease than before.10
Not getting adequate sleep while dealing with high or chronic stress can make matters worse. As research has shown, this can also bring on weight gain.11 If you constantly live with sleep deprivation, body hormones that control appetite also go haywire. Ever noticed how chronic sleep deprivation leaves you famished? You end up eating more when you’re low on sleep because the levels of satiety and appetite controlling hormones are not at normal levels during the daytime – ghrelin levels are elevated and leptin levels reduced. As a result, higher body mass index is common in someone who is sleep deprived.12
6. Digestive Problems
Stress impacts your digestive system as well. While some people may wind up with constipation, others may have chronic diarrhea. You may also feel like throwing up as nausea hits you. That’s because stress also alters how you digest food and how much nutrition you absorb from it. If you end up eating more than you normally do, “stress eating” foods that are too spicy, greasy, or very rich, you may also experience acid reflux which causes discomfort and heartburn.13
7. Increased Risk Of Substance/Alcohol Abuse
Long-term stress can also make you more vulnerable to addictions to substances like drugs or alcohol. Not only does it raise your risk of developing an addiction in the first place, it can also mean you are more likely to relapse even if you’ve gone through de-addiction. Taking these addictive substances may be a coping mechanism to deal with the constant stress. It could also help ease tension temporarily.14
8. Headaches And Migraines Stemming From Muscle Pain
Migraines and tension headaches have been linked to the existence of chronic muscle tension around the head, neck, and shoulders – a characteristic of chronic stress.15 Which is why you might find yourself coping with bad headaches when you are stressed, in addition to other aches and pains in your muscles or bones.16 As the American Migraine Foundation points out, this is one vicious cycle. Experiencing stress can cause you to develop a migraine if that is one of your triggers. This, in turn, may cause chronic pain. This chronic pain may result in further stress, and so on, reinforcing the stress–headache–pain–stress cycle.17
9. Memory And Learning Problems
Mental health problems and long-term stress have also been linked to cognitive impairment. According to researchers, patients with stress-linked exhaustion showed weaker cognitive ability than normal test subjects. Specifically, their speed, working memory, attention span, learning memory, and episodic memory were all impacted.18 So why does this happen? When you experience prolonged stress, it can cause damage to your neurons, especially in the hippocampus section of your brain which is responsible for, among other things, your memory and your emotions.19
10. Adverse Effect On Male Reproductive And Sexual Health
If men have too much cortisol in their bodies, it could hamper production of male sex hormone testosterone. With inadequate levels of this hormone, men may experience a dip in libido and impaired sperm production, which could even lead to impotence. It may also cause erectile dysfunction in men.20
11. Irregular Periods, Low Libido, And Poor Oocyte Quality In Women
Women, on the other hand, may see stress manifest in irregular menstrual cycles.21 It may also cause some women to experience painful periods. Stress may lead to a dip in libido, too.22 It may even impair the quality of oocytes or immature eggs and adversely affect chances of getting pregnant.23
Coping With Chronic Stress
Ideally, you should look at ways of planning or organizing your life so that you experience less stress on a daily basis. If, however, your stress triggers are beyond your control, there are some ways to reduce the fallout on your body.
- Get some physical exercise: It can ease stress and help you manage it better. The feel-good neurotransmitters called endorphins increase when you undertake physical activity and can ease anxiety and depression and improve your mood.24
- Eat healthy: Inflammatory foods can worsen stress and depression.25 So skip the caffeine, sugar, fatty foods, processed foods, sodas, and salty foods which can stress you out. Instead, opt for more fresh produce and home-cooked meals.
- Sleep well: Getting a good night’s rest is crucial to support your body’s normal stress response and keep levels of stress hormone cortisol in check.
- Build a strong support system of friends and family: Reach out to a counselor or psychologist when you feel stressed.26
- Use relaxation techniques: From yoga or tai chi to meditation, deep breathing, chanting, and prayer can help ou cope with stress.27 Even taking time out to read, listen to music, paint, or do something you love can help.
Remember, if you are not able to keep your problems in check through these lifestyle changes, you may need to consult a doctor or psychologist. This is especially important for anyone with problems that could be potentially life-threatening like heart problems or those with psychological problems like depression.28
|↑1||A Simple Way to Combat Chronic Stress. Harvard Business Review.|
|↑2, ↑28||Understanding chronic stress. American Psychological Association.|
|↑3||Stress Effects. The American Institute of Stress.|
|↑4||Khan, Sarah, and Rafeeq Alam Khan. “Chronic Stress Leads to Anxiety and Depression.” Ann Psychiatry Ment Health 5, no. 1 (2017): 1091.|
|↑5||Nestler, Eric J., Michel Barrot, Ralph J. DiLeone, Amelia J. Eisch, Stephen J. Gold, and Lisa M. Monteggia. “Neurobiology of depression.” Neuron 34, no. 1 (2002): 13-25.|
|↑6||Stress and Anxiety Interfere With Sleep. Anxiety and Depression Association of America.|
|↑7||Stress Weakens the Immune System. American Psychological Association.|
|↑8||Baum, Andrew, and Donna M. Posluszny. “Health psychology: mapping biobehavioral contributions to health and illness.” Annual review of psychology 50, no. 1 (1999): 137-163.|
|↑9||Stress. Anxiety and Depression Association of America.|
|↑10, ↑15||Stress Effects on the Body. American Psychological Association.|
|↑11||Berkey, Catherine S., Helaine RH Rockett, and Graham A. Colditz. “Weight gain in older adolescent females: the internet, sleep, coffee, and alcohol.” The Journal of Pediatrics 153, no. 5 (2008): 635-639.|
|↑12||Taheri, Shahrad, Ling Lin, Diane Austin, Terry Young, and Emmanuel Mignot. “Short sleep duration is associated with reduced leptin, elevated ghrelin, and increased body mass index.” PLoS Med 1, no. 3 (2004): e62.|
|↑13||Stress Effects.The American Institute of Stress.|
|↑14||Sinha, Rajita. “Chronic stress, drug use, and vulnerability to addiction.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences1141, no. 1 (2008): 105-130.|
|↑16, ↑22||Stress Effects. The American Institute of Stress.|
|↑17||Stress and Migraine. American Migraine Foundation.|
|↑18||Jonsdottir, I. H., A. Nordlund, S. Ellbin, Thomas Ljung, K. Glise, P. Währborg, and A. Wallin. “Cognitive impairment in patients with stress-related exhaustion.” Stress 16, no. 2 (2013): 181-190.|
|↑19||McEwen, Bruce S., and Robert M. Sapolsky. “Stress and cognitive function.” Current opinion in neurobiology 5, no. 2 (1995): 205-216.|
|↑20||Pressman, Angela, Antonio Hernandez, and Suresh C. Sikka. “Lifestyle Stress and Its Impact on Male Reproductive Health.” In Bioenvironmental Issues Affecting Men’s Reproductive and Sexual Health, pp. 73-83. 2018.|
|↑21||Stress and your health. Office on Women’s Health.|
|↑23||Prasad, Shilpa, Meenakshi Tiwari, Ashutosh N. Pandey, Tulsidas G. Shrivastav, and Shail K. Chaube. “Impact of stress on oocyte quality and reproductive outcome.” Journal of biomedical science 23, no. 1 (2016): 36.|
|↑24||Mersy, David J. “Health benefits of aerobic exercise.” Postgraduate medicine 90, no. 1 (1991): 103-112.|
|↑25||Miller, Andrew H., and Charles L. Raison. “The role of inflammation in depression: from evolutionary imperative to modern treatment target.” Nature Reviews Immunology 16, no. 1 (2016): 22-34.|
|↑26, ↑27||Understanding the stress response. Harvard Health Publications.|