Stress can cause several physical and psychological side effects in the human body, but when the stress is chronic or may be far more severe than one can properly handle, these various side effects can develop into full-blown conditions and many that will last a person their entire life.
One of the most commonly known physical problems that stress can cause is heart disease. Individuals with high levels of stress often end up having high blood pressure and having to take medications to treat this problem, especially those with high-stress jobs, but the heart problems can be even worse than this. Consistently high levels of the stress hormone "cortisol" can lead to increased cholesterol levels, which can cause fatty deposits to form within blood vessels and obstruct the blood flow. It can also impact the body's ability to get the blood flowing through the heart itself and impairs its ability to receive both blood and oxygen, which it most definitely needs to keep the rest of the body functioning as well.
Stress can also eventually affect the consistency of one's blood when it comes to clotting, making it far more likely to do so, and this can lead to a stroke (which may leave a person with permanent damage or even be fatal). With all of these factors, it's no surprise that one's circulation would be affected as well, and this can cause trouble with healing, limbs, and organs receiving proper blood flow in order to function, and an increased risk of infection and infections worsening when the body is unable to circulate enough blood to assist in the healing process.
For those with asthma, it also worsens the condition. Stress is a common trigger for those with this issue, and the increased severity of asthma attacks will also increase stress levels when the ability to breathe becomes even more difficult. Each impacts the other and can drag an asthmatic individual into a very vicious cycle that requires both treatments with asthma medications as well as calming techniques or medications to manage stress and severe anxiety. Many people under a lot of stress experience symptoms of anxiety and have panic attacks that can be extremely frightening and only amp up their stress levels even further, but for people with asthma, this can be a very serious health concern.
Obesity is also a side effect of stress and comes with numerous complications on its own. When dealing with a lot of pressure, people often let their diet and eating habits slack and turn to unhealthy junk foods as a quick fix, as well as a stress reliever (for those who are prone to "stress eat"). This in itself can cause all types of health problems when the body isn't receiving the nutrients it needs to combat the negative effects of stress, and there is also the increased caloric intake leading to weight gain. The stress hormone cortisol also affects the amount of insulin in the body, which not only will affect those that have diabetic conditions, but it will cause insulin resistance (and excessive insulin levels in the body) which will then lead to the body being signaled to store even more fat.
Obesity can be counteracted with healthier lifestyle choices and proper stress management (if that is the primary cause) but left untreated; it can lead to even more health complications. It can contribute to type 2 diabetes, various heart problems due to clogged arteries and the body's amount of effort exerted to maintain a heavier body, all types of chemical imbalances, joint problems, sleep issues, chronic physical pain, mental health concerns, and even certain cancers.
Another common complaint among the stressed is regularly experiencing headaches. This is more common in those who are already prone to having headaches, and especially for those who experience migraines-stress can be a trigger to set off one of these episodes. Stress or "tension" headaches seem to be associated with other physical symptoms contributing to them such as those who may clench their jaws or experiencing shoulder and neck stiffness when stressed out.
Once set off, a headache may be alleviated by medications to help reduce inflammation and pain (such as taking a Tylenol capsule) or sometimes by practicing relaxation techniques to reduce the amount of tension involved. Regularly exercising, reducing stress levels, and eating a healthy diet may reduce the prevalence of experiencing headaches and the pain associated with them. Migraines are far more serious and debilitating and may not be so easily resolved.
Digestive problems are also common in those under stress. Many people have noticed getting a bit sick to their stomach when they have a presentation to give in front of a group of people or when they've received some devastating news. The brain and digestive system are far more connected than one would initially realize. When the brain experiences high levels of stress, it releases chemicals and hormones in response to that, and these are very easily picked up by the digestive system. People are affected differently, with some losing their appetites and some turning to stress-eating, but the hormones can also cause even further problems. More immediate effects when stressing out may be nausea, diarrhea, stomach cramps, and a generally upset stomach. When high-stress conditions are allowed to continue affecting one's digestive tract for an extended period though, enough damage may occur and lead to conditions such as GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) or IBS (irritable bowel syndrome).
Chronic or high levels of stress also damage People's immune systems. Stress hormones suppress the immune system, and when this is combined with the digestive system not being able to do its job as well and circulation within the body being impaired, this places individuals at a much higher risk for illness and the contraction of various diseases. A healthy body can come into contact with germs and other bacteria and be able to fight off infections, but an impaired immune system means that it will not be able to slow the growth rate associated with infectious conditions and may even lead to health complications if sickness persists for too long of a period. Unhealthy coping habits when under significant stress may also further damage the immune system and increases these risks. For individuals with cancer, stress is even linked to metastasis and is a potential cause as well.
Some may joke about stress causing gray hair, but it does speed up the aging process in people. It does this by damaging and causing shortening of the DNA strands, which in turn means the DNA strands are unable to replicate and replenish themselves and therefore contribute to aging and a shorter lifespan. This phenomenon has also been linked to other diseases occurring and even to premature death.
Anyone experiencing a significant amount of stress may also display symptoms of depression and anxiety, which are very common and closely linked in these circumstances. Many other factors contribute to these two conditions, but chronic stress causes enough chemical changes and worries to set off feelings of anxiety and depression in someone that otherwise may not typically have it. In those susceptible to various mental health conditions, it may be a trigger for certain symptoms or may worsen present symptoms by making them even more difficult to cope with. It is not unusual for someone under extreme stress to begin to feel hopeless, lose interest in the things they love, or even experience panic attacks when overwhelmed by whatever may be going on in their lives. In more severe cases, one may even develop other significant mental health conditions, especially one such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depending upon the severity of their experiences.
Stress is also connected to disrupted sleep patterns, either sleeping far more than one should be or not being able to sleep at all. When feelings of chronic stress stimulate the nervous system, this releases cortisol (the stress hormone), which then affects how alert an individual is. Stress will not simply fade away once it's time for someone to rest, so this hyperaware and agitated state will lead to bouts of insomnia. Unfortunately, when the body is unable to rest, repair, and reset itself properly, this only causes a further increase in the levels of stress and worsens sleep problems.
High levels of stress can also impact a person's memory and cause bouts of forgetfulness, especially in those with dementia or at risk of having Alzheimer's disease. The average person that finds themselves trying to cope with an intense situation or series of events may feel confused in general, and they may be so overwhelmed that their memory is affected. This is usually temporary in younger or healthier individuals but can be problematic in those that are older. Stress causes the brain to age as well, and this coupled with inflammation in the brain from stress can contribute to the development and worsening of memory and cognitive functioning. When stress causes depression, this is also a confirmed risk factor for developing Alzheimer's, which is irreversible.
The connection between stress and illness is a strong one, and there are quite a few chronic conditions associated with prolonged or severe stress. These primarily are the presence of some of the above symptoms, but to the extent that they become chronic, which means they are recurring, consistent, and unlikely to simply fade away as most symptoms would once stressors are removed and the side effects would normally dissipate as well. Sometimes the damage to the brain and body is too significant to be undone.
Some of the stress-related diseases and conditions that may not fade over time are:
Stress And Addiction
Addiction may occur when someone becomes reliant on a particular substance after prolonged abuse as a coping mechanism or may start after taking narcotic medications after a medical procedure. Regardless, stress can significantly amplify the behaviors of addiction as one struggles to numb out the worries and physical symptoms of the anxiety and depression associated with extreme or chronic stress.
When a person is stressed and does not have any healthy coping mechanisms, one of the quickest and easiest methods of mentally distancing themselves from their problems is via intoxication. Some people may have a drink on a Friday afternoon after a rough work week, or people may recreationally use certain drugs in the name of "having a good time," but when stress comes into play and in an unbearable manner, a person is rapidly capable of abusing their preferred substances to try to numb the pain.
For those attempting to cover from addiction, the mental and physical side effects are difficult when withdrawing from nearly any substance, and this causes stress in itself. Many people relapse because they feel incapable of handling and managing the withdrawal symptoms and their new awareness of the realities of life, and many are also left trying to pick up the pieces once they sober up and see the damage that's been done in their lives. The stress of these issues can often lead them to return to their substance of choice or even to try to find other alternatives and unfortunately continue the pattern.
A history of stress and trauma has also been linked to an increase in the risk of developing an addiction later on in one's life, as well as alongside continued stress over the years.
Coping With Stress And Reducing Its Effects
The best way to handle stress in your life is to find healthy and appropriate coping mechanisms to fit your particular situation and lifestyle. Focusing on trying to alleviate the stressors themselves is ideal, but not always possible. There are many ways to relieve the symptoms associated with stress through, whether it's through self-care, relaxation exercises, meditation, physical exercise to get out your frustrations, hobbies and other positive distractions, or even seeking professional help and the use of medications. BetterHelp has many articles and resources to help you educate yourself on stress, its sign and symptoms, and the many various coping mechanisms one might choose when trying to get things back under control.
It is also essential that you not only care for your mental health but tend to your physical health as well. A healthy diet and regular exercise can reduce stress levels as well as improve other physical conditions that may contribute to exhaustion, depression, anxiety, and other concerns. A sick body with a healthy mind is still susceptible to being more affected by stress and other unpleasant facets of life. Speak to your doctor for professional medical advice regarding any of the stress-induced conditions above and how to safely and properly treat them to get back to your healthiest possible state.
If you're struggling with a stressful past or with current stress in your life, the first step to overcoming these struggles and preventing short-term and long-term damage to your mind and body is to seek help. The professionals at BetterHelp are available from the comfort of your home (or wherever you may be) and on whatever schedule best fits your needs to offer guidance when identifying your stressors, finding healthy coping mechanisms, and starting on the path to better your mental and physical health.