While stress can be beneficial for survival, chronic stress can have detrimental effects on all aspects of physical health.

Stress is a common word used to refer to difficult or perceived situations that threaten your stability or balance. Such situations can be called stressors, while the body’s reaction to the stressor is called the stress response.

The quick reaction of the stress response is beneficial because it helps you cope with a problematic situation by overcoming or preventing it from becoming stressful. However, prolonged stress from the response can be damaging by negatively impacting your body systems.

Some of the physical effects of chronic stress include an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, digestive disorders, infertility and infections.

Relaxation massage is a great way to relax your body and mind. Still, without some understanding of the damaging effects of chronic stress, you’re exposing yourself to temporary fixes that may not provide long-term benefits.



1. Your nervous systems

The stress response is characterized by emotional activation of the brain, which results in the secretion of hormones from the sympathetic nervous system.

The sympathetic nervous system is involved in the fight-or-flight response. The fight or flight response releases adrenaline from the adrenal glands. The fight or flight response involves increased heart rate and blood pressure, respiration rate, glucose release from the liver, and activation of arm and leg muscles. This prepares the body to deal with a deadly emergency.

Hormones released during a stress response signal the adrenal glands to release the hormone cortisol. Cortisol helps keep the body in a state of alertness to respond to stressors by keeping the sympathetic nervous system activated.

Cortisol also plays a vital role in suppressing the initial stress response after the stressor subsides. For example, cortisol is essential for replenishing the body’s depleted ener,gwhichores during the stress response. Activation of the sympathetic nervous system and elevation of cortisol levels are necessary to effectively respond to acute stressors.

Prolonged exposure to stress leads to dysfunction of the regions of the brain involved in the response to acute stressors.

Acute stress increases blood supply to the brain and improves learning and memory, while chronic stress impairs learning and memory. Chronic stress also causes changes in various brain regions that lead to increased activity in the emotional areas of the brain and decreased activity in brain regions involved in complex intellectual tasks, such as the frontal cortex.

Consistent with these changes, chronic stress is associated with an increased risk of anxiety and depression and poorer impulse control.


2. Your digestive system

During acute stress, the fight or flight response produced by activating the sympathetic nervous system leads to the diversion of energy to the brain and muscles.

This means reduced energy is invested in activities such as food intake and digestion, which can lead to reduced appetite. Acute stress also decreases contractions of the muscles present in the digestive tract and gastrointestinal secretions.

Some of the common acute effects of stress on the gastrointestinal system include:

  • vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Heartburn or stomach pain
  • The constipation


The release of cortisol due to this initial fight-or-flight response leads to increased appetite and consumption of high-calorie foods, such as foods high in fats and sugars.

Such stress-related indulgence in comfort foods helps dampen the activity of circuits involved in the stress response. Since chronic stress often involves several stressful episodes over a day, there can be multiple instances of high cortisol levels and food stress.

This can lead to increased food intake and obesity. However, in some cases, chronic stress can cause appetite and weight loss.

Chronic stress is also associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. Chronic stress can cause the gut to become more responsive to stressful situations. Chronic stress can thus contribute to the development of gastrointestinal disorders such as inflammatory bowel disease and inflammatory bowel syndrome.


3. Your cardiovascular system

Activating the sympathetic nervous system during acute stress increases heart rate and blood pressure. This is advantageous when exposed to stressors, as it results in a more excellent blood supply and,, therefore,, more oxygen and glucose delivered to body tissues.

However, chronic stress can lead to long-term elevation of blood pressure, which can cause cardiovascular disorders such as arrhythmias, myocardial infarctions or heart attacks, cardiac arrest and stroke.

Chronic or recurrent acute stress can cause the tissue of the inner walls of the arteries to wear away. This leads to an inflammatory response and plaque formation. Cholesterol and fat accumulate on this inflamed plaque and can restrict blood flow. This plaque can cause blood clots and block the supply of blood and oxygen to the tissues.


4. Your respiratory system

Acute stress causes the fight-or-flight response to be activated to deal with life-threatening situations or other emergencies. This requires a more excellent blood supply and a simultaneous supply of oxygen to the organs to facilitate the stress response.

Acute stress, therefore, involves activating the sympathetic nervous system to increase heart and respiratory rates. Acute stress can cause hyperventilation, shortness of breath, and even panic attacks in some cases.

Chronic stress can worsen symptoms of pre-existing respiratory conditions like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema.


5. Your muscular system

Acute stress causes muscles to tense to protect them from injury and to relax when the stressor is overcome or subsides. However, under chronic stress, muscles tend to stay tense for an extended period.

Chronic stress can lead to body aches, including shoulder, neck and back pain. Additionally, migraines and tension headaches can occur due to tension in the neck and scalp muscles.


6. Your immune system

The association between stress and disease has been recognized for many decades, with chronic stress leading to suppression of the immune system.

These immunosuppressive effects of chronic stress are responsible for an increased susceptibility to infections.

In contrast, acute stress leads to an improved immune response. The immune effects of acute stress can exacerbate pre-existing conditions like asthma and arthritis.


Long-term consequences of stress on your health

Chronic stress can lead to physical and psychological disorders. Some of the health consequences of chronic stress include an increased risk of:

  • Cardiovascular conditions like hypertension and atherosclerosis
  • Gastrointestinal disorders like inflammatory bowel syndrome
  • Obesity
  • Sleep problems like insomnia
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Headaches and body aches
  • Impaired memory and concentration
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • infections


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