While the effects of stress are beneficial for your survival, chronic stress can negatively affect all aspects of your physical health.
Stress is a common word used to refer to difficult or perceived difficult situations that threaten your stability or balance. Such cases 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 turning into a stressful one. However, prolonged stress from the response can be damaging by negatively impacting all of 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 understanding 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 involves increased heart rate and blood pressure, increased respiration rate, increased release of glucose from the liver, and activation of arm and leg muscles. The fight or flight response releases adrenaline from the adrenal glands. 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 energy stores depleted during the stress response. Activation of the sympathetic nervous system and elevation of cortisol levels are necessary for an effective response to acute stressors.
Prolonged exposure to stress leads to dysfunction of the regions of the brain involved in 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 brain’s emotional areas 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 activation of the sympathetic nervous system leads to the diversion of energy to the brain and muscles.
This means that reduced energy is invested in activities such as food intake and digestion, leading to reduced appetite. Acute stress also causes a decrease in contractions of the muscles present in the digestive tract and a reduction of gastrointestinal secretions.
Some of the common acute effects of stress on the gastrointestinal system include:
- 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 affects 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, chronic stress can cause appetite and weight loss in some cases.
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. Chronic stress is also associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
3. Your cardiovascular system
Activation of 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 being 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 stress 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 tend to 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 supply of blood and a simultaneous supply of oxygen to the organs to facilitate the stress response.
Acute stress, therefore, involves the activation of the sympathetic nervous system to increase heart rate and respiratory rate. Acute stress can cause hyperventilation, shortness of breath, and even panic attacks.
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 relax when the stressor is overcome or subsides. However, muscles tend to stay tense for an extended period under chronic stress.
Chronic stress can lead to body aches, including shoulder, neck and back pain. Additionally, migraines and tension headaches can occur due to uncertainty 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 increased susceptibility to infections.
In contrast, acute stress leads to 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
- Sleep problems like insomnia
- Type 2 diabetes
- Headaches and body aches
- Impaired memory and concentration