The Effects of Chronic Stress
So far on our blog this month, we’ve covered stress statistics in America and various stress management techniques. Today we want to explain just how stress affects your body to really illustrate why stress management is so important. As stated by the American Psychological Association, stress affects every single part of your body including the musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, nervous, and reproductive systems. While our bodies are well equipped to handle stress and can even thrive during short durations of elevated stress levels, chronic stress has numerous negative effects on each of the above-mentioned systems.
Muscle tension is basically like a reflex reaction to stress, it is the body’s way of guarding against injury and pain. With sudden onset stress, the muscles tense up all at once to help get you through whatever stressful situation you may be in, and then they release their tension when it passes. However, chronic stress causes your muscles to be tense and guarded for unnatural amounts of time which can lead to tension headaches, back pain, joint pain and can even to long-term stress-related disorders.
Short-term stress such as meeting deadlines, being stuck in traffic, or suddenly slamming on the brakes to avoid an accident, causes the release of stress hormones. These hormones, adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol, act as messengers to notify your body to increase your heart rate and create stronger contractions of the heart muscle. During this time, the blood vessels that direct blood to the large muscles and the heart dilate, thereby increasing the amount of blood pumped to these parts of the body and elevating blood pressure. This overall sensation is often referred to as “the flight or fight response.” Once the stressful situation has been resolved, the body returns to its normal state.
Chronic stress causes your body to consistently have a high heart rate, elevated levels of stress hormones and high blood pressure, all of which can lead to an increased risk of hypertension, heart attack, or stroke.
Stress triggers the release of the hormone adrenaline during a stressful or life-threatening event. The release of adrenaline makes the heart beat faster and expands the air passages of the lungs to take up more oxygen. This can cause breathing difficulties such as shortness of breath and rapid breathing. In a healthy person, the effects caused by short-term stress on the lungs are usually not dangerous, but chronic stress leads to wear and tear of the lungs which deteriorates respiratory health over time. One severe stress response is found to trigger the release of molecules such as histamines and leukotrienes in the body which causes narrowing of the airways causing breathing difficulty. This can also lead to panic attacks or asthma attacks in those with existing asthma.
During a stressful event, an increase in cortisol can provide the energy required to deal with prolonged or extreme challenge. As explained by the APA, glucocorticoids, including cortisol, are important for regulating the immune system and reducing inflammation. While this is valuable during stressful or threatening situations where injury might result in increased immune system activation, chronic stress can result in impaired communication between the immune system and the HPA axis.
This impaired communication has been linked to the future development of numerous physical and mental health conditions, including chronic fatigue, metabolic disorders (e.g., diabetes, obesity), depression, and immune disorders.
The brain and the gut are in constant communication. This direct relationship causes our gastrointestinal system to be sensitive to emotions and reactions such as stress. While short-term stress can cause “butterflies” or an upset stomach, chronic stress negatively affects our digestive system in many ways. It can lead to a decrease in blood and oxygen flow to the stomach, cramping, an imbalance in gut bacteria, inflammation, and uncontrollable irritability. These symptoms can further develop into gastrointestinal (GI) disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), irritable bowel disease (IBD), peptic ulcers or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) signals the adrenal glands to release hormones called adrenalin (epinephrine) and cortisol to prepare the body to respond to an emergency situation or short-term stressors. Once the crisis is over, your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) facilitates recovery and helps your body return to the pre-emergency, unstressed state.
Chronic stress can result in wear and tear on your body as your autonomic nervous system continues to trigger physical reactions. It’s not so much what chronic stress does to the nervous system, but what continuous activation of the nervous system does to other bodily systems that become problematic the APA warns.
Research shows that chronic stress can affect testosterone production in men. Chronic stress also negatively impacts sperm production and maturation.
In women, chronic stress can cause irregular and/or painful periods and can negatively impact her ability to conceive. For women who are pregnant, chronic stress can complicate the health of her pregnancy and her postpartum adjustment.
As you can tell, stress quite literally affects every part of your body. When left unmanaged, chronic stress can lead to long-lasting health complications. That is why stress a management is so important and why we are taking Stress Awareness Month seriously! If you haven’t already, check out our blog for stress management resources.
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