The Physical Toll Of Stress: What Happens To Your Body When You're Stressed
Did you know that stress can have a profound physical toll on your body? In fact, it's estimated that over 90% of all doctor visits are due to stress-related concerns. When we experience prolonged periods of stress, our bodies respond in ways that can lead to long-term health problems or even serious medical conditions.
So what exactly happens when we're stressed out? Let's take a closer look at the physical effects of chronic stress and how they manifest in our bodies. Plus, we'll review some strategies for reducing stress and safeguarding your physical health.
What Is Stress?
Stress is something that many of us experience from time to time, but what exactly is it, and why does it affect us the way that it does?
Stress is the reaction to a perceived threat or challenge. It's our body's way of preparing us to fight or flee the threat. When we experience stress, our brains trigger the release of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which help to mobilize the body's resources for action.
Stress can be caused by a variety of things, including work-related issues, financial worries, relationship problems, and health concerns. In short, anything that we perceive as a threat or challenge can trigger the stress response.
In the short term, stress can actually be a good thing. It can help us stay alert, focused, and motivated to complete a task or overcome a challenge. But if stress becomes chronic or prolonged, it can negatively affect our physical and mental health.
When we experience a stressful situation, our bodies react in myriad ways. From increased heart rate to heightened alertness, these physical responses are part of our innate stress response.
The fight-or-flight response is a primal reaction to perceived danger. The response happens almost immediately after a threat is detected because of the hard-wired circuitry that exists between our brains and our physiology.
For instance, if you are walking home alone late at night and suddenly hear footsteps behind you, your heart rate can increase, and you may begin to breathe faster. These changes help to prime you for action and can help you quickly react if you need to flee or fight.
The sympathetic nervous system plays a vital role in triggering the fight-or-flight response. This network of nerve fibers prepares the body for action when the brain perceives a threat. Once activated, the sympathetic nervous system triggers a cascade of physical responses, including:
- Rapid heart rate
- Increased respiration
- Dilated pupils
- Decreased digestion and blood flow to the skin
- Increased blood sugar levels
These responses are designed to help us deal with a threat efficiently and quickly. However, they're not always helpful for non-physical threats like job stress or relationship issues. In fact, they can be detrimental to our health if left unchecked.
In addition to the physical responses triggered by the fight-or-flight response, the brain releases stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. When these hormones are released, they help to mobilize the body's resources for action. For example, if you are in a car accident, adrenaline and cortisol can help you react quickly and escape danger. But if we experience repeated or chronic stress, the constant release of stress hormones can harm our health.
Research indicates long-term exposure to stress hormones can increase the risk of heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. In addition, chronic stress can also worsen existing conditions like asthma or depression. Long-term stress can also weaken your immune system, making you more susceptible to colds and infections.
When we experience chronic stress, our bodies can't turn off the stress response. This response can lead to a state of chronic arousal, which prevents the body from recovering and restoring itself. To prevent this from happening, it's important to recognize when you're feeling stressed and take steps to reduce stress levels.
The Physical And Mental Impact Of Stress On Your Body
Stress is a common problem that many people face in today's fast-paced world. Whether it's due to work, relationships, or simply trying to keep up with life's demands, stress can seriously impact our physical and mental health.
Stress can manifest in various physical symptoms, including:
- Headaches and migraines: Stress may cause muscle tension, which can lead to headaches and even migraines. This phenomenon occurs because stress exacerbates the pain-sensitive nerves in the brain that can trigger these painful headaches.
- Muscle tension and pain: Stress can cause you to hold your muscles in a tense position for prolonged periods, which can lead to pain in your back, neck, and shoulders.
- Digestive issues: Stress can also affect your digestive system, causing a range of issues, including stomach pains, cramps, diarrhea, and constipation. Stress can cause gastrointestinal contractions and increase inflammation in the gut.
- Cardiovascular problems: Chronic stress can increase inflammation in the body, leading to the buildup of plaques in the arteries and increasing your risk of heart disease.
- Skin conditions: Stress can aggravate skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis, or acne because it can cause inflammation in the skin and trigger the release of hormones that can make the skin more sensitive.
- Weakened immune system: Stress can weaken the immune system, making it harder for our bodies to fight infection and disease. Stress hormones suppress immunity, leaving us more vulnerable to sickness.
In addition to its physical symptoms, stress can also have a serious impact on our mental health. Stress can manifest in many mental health issues, including:
- Anxiety and depression: Stress can cause feelings of anxiety and depression, which can have a lasting effect on your mood, behavior, and outlook on life.
- Insomnia and sleep disorders: Stress can disrupt your sleep and cause a range of sleep disorders, including insomnia, nightmares, and sleep apnea.
- Cognitive decline and memory problems: Stress can impair cognitive function, which leads to problems with memory, focus, and decision-making. It can also cause difficulties in information processing, resulting in confusion and disorientation.
- Addiction and substance abuse: Chronic stress can cause people to turn to substance abuse to cope with their stress. Substance abuse can cause serious health problems, including addiction, liver damage, and overdose.
Strategies For Preventing And Managing Stress
Stress is often a normal part of life. Fortunately, there are many strategies to help prevent and manage stress. Lifestyle changes and stress-management techniques can help reduce stress levels and make living with stress easier.
Exercise is one of the best ways to reduce stress. Not only does it burn off unnecessary energy and release endorphins, but research has also shown that common physical activity can help control hormones and increase resilience to stress.
A healthy, balanced diet can help nourish your body and provide the necessary nutrients to manage stress. You can choose foods high in complex carbohydrates and fiber, such as whole grains, vegetables, and fruits, as well as foods rich in protein, such as lean meats, fish, and legumes.
Sleep is also essential to our health and well-being. Our bodies use rest to detoxify and heal, so being well-rested is important for managing stress. Unfortunately, research indicates that approximately 30% of adults aren't getting enough sleep. Therefore, it is recommended that adults get at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep every night for optimal health and well-being.
Stress-management techniques can help you relax and reduce stress levels. While the efficacy of these techniques varies by individual, some studies have found that mindfulness meditation can reduce stress and improve anxiety. This technique involves sitting quietly and focusing on the present moment without judgment.
Yoga combines physical movements with mindfulness meditation, helping you to connect your mind and body. Yoga has been found to be effective in reducing anxiety, stress levels, and depression. Deep breathing exercises help calm your mind and body by increasing oxygen flow and reducing heart rate and blood pressure.
If lifestyle changes and stress-management techniques are not working, online therapy or counseling may be beneficial. A mental health professional can help you identify the sources of stress and develop strategies to manage it more effectively. You can take advantage of the therapeutic benefits through a convenient and quiet online platform without physically visiting a therapist. The increased accessibility can make therapy a less intimidating and more comfortable process.
Recent evidence supports Internet-delivered cognitive behavioral therapy (ICBT) as an effective way to reduce stress-related symptoms. It involves a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy techniques, such as restructuring negative thought patterns, challenging unhelpful beliefs, and setting achievable goals. Studies have found that it can help reduce feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression. It can also provide self-care strategies to help individuals manage stressful situations in a healthier way.
Stress may be a common part of everyday life, but it shouldn't be ignored. The long-term implications of stress can be significant, so taking proactive steps before your physical and mental health are at risk is critical.
Fortunately, there are many strategies to prevent and manage stress that can help reduce its effects. When combined with lifestyle changes and stress-management techniques, online therapy can be a valuable tool in decreasing stress levels. When you address the sources of stress and develop strategies to manage it, you're taking the first step towards feeling better.
Other Commonly Asked Questions
What are 5 effects of stress on our bodies?
The effects of stress can have a major impact on the human body and health. Here are five ways that stress symptoms or effects of stress may impact a person's health and well-being:
- Reproductive health effects. Stress can impact the reproductive systems of individuals. According to the APA website, high levels of stress can be associated with irregular or absent menstrual cycles, changes in the length of cycles, and more painful menstrual periods.
- Heart health effects. Stress is linked to an increased risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and having a heart attack.
- Mental health effects. Stress can affect mental health in a number of ways, leading to an increased risk of depression symptoms, anxiety symptoms, irritability, social isolation, and trouble focusing.
- Body pain. Stress is associated with body aches and muscle tension.
- Gastrointestinal health effects. Digestive problems and stress go hand-in-hand. Stress can lead to nausea, upset stomach, stomach pain, and the worsening of symptoms in those who live with irritable bowel syndrome and various other G.I. health concerns.
Poor judgment, unexplained chest pain, and changes in sleep or trouble sleeping are also possible effects of stress. If you notice these stress symptoms and effects, make sure to consult with your doctor or another healthcare professional. Some of these physical changes can be serious and may have other causes. For example, chest pain can be a symptom of various different health problems. Furthermore, managing and reducing stress is vital if you experience ongoing stress symptoms and stress effects, stressful life events, or stress overload. With health risks such as an increased likelihood of cardiovascular disease, heart disease, or a heart attack, it's crucial to take care of your health. Those facing long term stress may need to look at the root cause and if there's something within their control that they can change. Some may choose to change something about their job or work schedule (e.g., setting an away e mail when you are off work to better manage time and reduce the urge to open your e mail outside of work, reducing or changing work hours, etc.), attend therapy, or implement new self-care routines. There are various relaxation techniques and activities that can help people care for their health and manage stress. For example, tai chi, yoga, deep breathing exercises, physical activity, and time with other people. Research shows that social support can aid people in building resilience to and managing stress or coping with stress. Many relaxation and stress management techniques and tools a person might use to lower stress symptoms can also have a connection to a decreased risk of heart attack and heart disease, though there are a number of different factors that can increase the risk of heart disease or a heart attack that exist outside of stress.
What happens to your body when you have too much stress?
Stress can affect health in many ways, including mental health and physical health. There is a natural stress response that occurs when individuals experience threatening or stressful situations. However, this survival mechanism impairs health when it is ongoing, and serious physical health and mental health effects can take place when someone experiences too much stress on a persistent basis. Even if you feel threatened (or if your body feels threatened) for a reason that you know does not put you in immediate danger logically, the nervous system can still react, and stress symptoms can still occur.
What are some examples of these stress symptoms? Stress symptoms or health effects can include physical symptoms, emotional symptoms, behavioral symptoms, and cognitive symptoms. Physical symptoms associated with stress can include high blood pressure, muscle tension, body aches or pain, headaches, and digestive problems. Emotional symptoms, behavioral symptoms, and cognitive symptoms associated with stress can include feelings of overwhelm, feelings of depression, a shorter temper, poor judgment, worsened memory, and feelings of anxiety. Stress can even lead to lower sexual desire, changes in reaction time, an increased risk of heart disease and heart attack, insomnia, and a range of other negative effects and health problems. Many of these health problems and stress symptoms or effects can be serious, impacting social relationships, work, and long-term well being.
A randomized control trial on mindfulness meditation, for example, showed that it can help reduce a person's perception of stress and increase well being.
What are 5 emotional signs of stress?
Many find that stress affects work performance, social relationships, self-esteem, and other parts of life. Stress symptoms can impact both the mind and body, and stress can cause or contribute to a wide range of health problems. Five emotional stress symptoms or signs of stress to look out for include:
- Increased irritability or a shorter temper.
- Feelings of depression.
- Feelings of anxiety.
- Feeling unmotivated.
- Social withdrawal or isolation.
Those with existing mental health problems or mental health conditions (such as depression or anxiety) may notice that their symptoms worsen when they experience stressful life situations. Therapy can help with managing stress or stress management as well as mental health conditions and concerns like anxiety disorders and depression. If you need help managing stress, the ways that stress can affect relationships and quality of life, depression, anxiety, or something else, don't hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional such as a therapist, whether that is online or in person. Online mental health therapy is proven by research to help people with a number of different life and health concerns. These include but aren't limited to mental health conditions such as anxiety disorders and OCD, relationships, and life stress.
Can stress make you physically sick?
Stress affects the entire body, and it can make a person feel sick in more ways than one. When people experience stress, their body goes into what's called the fight or flight response. When the body is in that stress response, the body responds as though there's an immediate threat; muscles tighten, blood pressure increases, stress hormones spike, and one's pulse becomes faster. You may notice both physical symptoms and mental health symptoms of stress or stress effects. These can include but aren't limited to sleep problems, digestive problems, unexplained chest pain, reduced sexual desire, poor judgment fatigue, feelings of anxiety, symptoms of depression, muscle tension or body pain and other changes to mental health or body function. It's important to listen to your body and find ways to handle stress. Talk with a healthcare provider if you notice any symptoms (e.g., chest pain, persistent feelings of depression or anxiety) that could indicate a serious health problem or may otherwise be a cause for concern.
How do I get rid of stress?
If you notice persistent stress and stress symptoms, whether those are mental and emotional stress symptoms or physical stress symptoms, you may wonder what to do to better manage stress. Ways to manage stress include:
- Scrolling back on responsibilities, if possible.
- Taking a break from stressful situations.
- Using relaxation techniques to manage stress, such as deep breathing and meditation.
- Working with a mental health professional, such as a therapist, to find long-term solutions and ways to manage stress more effectively.
- Getting social support from others.
- Physical activity and enjoyable hobbies.
How can I reduce stress quickly?
It can be highly beneficial to have coping skills to turn to in high-stress situations. Some things that may help relieve stress symptoms can include breathing exercises, meditation, and time outdoors. When the nervous system responds to stress, breath quickens, blood pressure rises, and individuals go into what's called a fight or flight response. Tools for managing stress can include but aren't limited to deep breathing exercises, guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, social support, taking a mindful break from thoughts about stressful life events, physical activity, and more. All of these may be stress management tools to use quickly, and you can keep them in mind to help yourself handle stress when it arises. If you notice that your stress or stress symptoms continue on an ongoing basis, it may be beneficial to speak with a therapist and, if applicable, make changes to your life that will help you handle stress. Stress overload can have serious health consequences, inclusive of both those that relate to mental health and physical health. It's crucial to take care of your well being, and knowing that someone is on your side, as well as having a professional who can help you find solutions and realistic stress management techniques, can be highly beneficial. Don't hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional in your local area or sign up for an online therapy company like BetterHelp that can help match you with a mental health professional.
How do I know my stress level?
Keeping an eye out for stress symptoms can help you determine your stress level. Worry, rumination, trouble sleeping, increased irritability, feelings of depression, headaches, jaw tension, and pain can all be stress symptoms and signs to look out for. If there is a particular scenario or stressful situation on your mind, a therapist may be able to help you address, navigate, or cope with it. Ongoing stress can lead to a wide range of health problems. Can stress cause a stroke? Health problems associated with ongoing or persistent stress can include but aren't limited to an increased risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. Some people who work in specific fields, such as human services, are at a high risk of burnout and stress. In fact, many studies have been conducted over time on the health effects that people in healthcare and human services face and the effects of stress that these individuals experience. If you work in human services or another high-stress field, stress management and self-care are vital. Don't be afraid to ask for help, and know that you don't need to handle stress alone.
What are the symptoms of chronic stress?
While stress is natural and not harmful in small doses, chronic stress affects mental and physical health, including in ways that can be serious. Chronic stress symptoms, symptoms of chronic stress, or chronic stress effects may include but aren't necessarily limited to:
- High blood pressure
- Sleep problems
- Muscle tension or body aches
- Increased heart attack risk
- Depression symptoms
- Anxiety symptoms
Stress can even impact people's reproductive systems and menstruation—some notice unexplained chest pain, digestive problems, and other effects that stress can cause, too. If stress affects your close relationships, mental health, physical health, sleep patterns, or other parts of life, it's likely time to make a change. Connecting with others, such as co workers, friends, or other supportive people in your life, engaging in relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation or deep breathing exercises to help soothe your nervous system, and focusing on elements of self-care like getting enough sleep, can all be helpful for managing stress or stress management. If you have difficulty managing stress, a medical or mental health care provider such as a therapist may be an incredibly beneficial addition to your support team.
Does crying relieve stress?
Crying can help relieve stress. Although excessive crying could be indicative of health problems (e.g., mental health conditions), research shows that it can help individuals experience relief from both emotional pain and physical pain. Crying is not a bad thing, and it is healthy to cry. If you experience stress symptoms on an ongoing basis or endure persistent high stress levels, make sure to reach out to a medical or mental health professional or healthcare provider who can help. A mental health professional, such as a therapist, can help individuals with stress management or managing stress. A mental health professional such as a therapist will consider your unique needs when helping you find ways to manage stress, navigate stressful situations, and care for your individual mental health.
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