Stress is a silent killer. It affects more than just your mood and mental state; it can impact your physical health as well. The effects of stress on the body are chronic, meaning they can continue for long periods of time — even if you feel like you’ve taken some time to relax or get away from it all.
The Stress Connection
Stress is a normal part of life. It’s not always harmful, but it can become detrimental when you’re constantly under stress and don’t know how to deal with it.
Stress can be positive or negative, physical or mental. In this context, we’ll mostly be talking about the negative side of stress — the kind that comes from environmental factors like financial concerns and work pressures as well as personal issues like disagreements with family members or friends.
When we experience stressful situations in our lives (commonly referred to as “threats”), our bodies react by releasing hormones into our bloodstream that are designed to help us fight back against potential danger. This is called the “fight-or-flight” response and helps us survive dangerous situations so we can return home safely at night after work each day. The fight-or-flight response works well most times when it’s needed (like when an animal attacks us during a hike), but sometimes these reactions are over-exaggerated because they’re triggered by stimuli that aren’t actually threats anymore (i.e., thinking about getting fired when there’s still time left on your contract).
Changes in Brain Structure
The brain is the body’s command center, coordinating our thoughts and actions. It’s important to keep it healthy because when the brain isn’t working right, so many other parts of your life can suffer. Stress can cause problems with your thinking skills, memory loss, decision-making abilities, and more.
Stress can also cause changes in brain structure that can lead to depression or anxiety disorders — and even memory loss or sleep problems for some people. And if stress goes on long enough without recovery time between episodes of high stress? Your body will literally have trouble keeping up with its daily functions:
- Like gaining weight from eating faster than usual or sleeping less than normal due to anxiety over work deadlines.
- Slowing down your metabolism.
Since you’re not getting enough nutrients from the food that could help regulate hormones such as leptin (which helps control hunger) and ghrelin (which stimulates appetite).
You’ve probably heard of cortisol, the stress hormone. But what exactly is it, and how does it affect your health?
Cortisol is a steroid produced by your body as part of its fight-or-flight response to stress. In other words, whenever you’re feeling overwhelmed or stressed out by life’s demands (to name a few scenarios: work deadlines and family obligations), this hormone helps prepare your body for action — often action involving running away or fighting back.
But while cortisol may have been designed to help us survive in dangerous situations (and even more so when we were cavemen), today there are many more non-life-threatening situations that cause an excess amount of cortisol production in our bodies — this includes things like road rage and sleep deprivation. And because excess amounts of this hormone can lead to serious health problems over time high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes – it’s important to know how we can minimize its effects on our bodies.
It increases inflammation in the body. In a healthy response to injury or infection, the immune system sends out cells to fight off the cause of stress in order to protect itself from further harm. Inflammation can be triggered by stress and is a result of increased levels of chemicals that are released during times of high anxiety and/or depression. The impact of inflammation on the body leads to a variety of health issues, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and arthritis
Heart Health Hazard
The heart is a delicate organ that must function properly in order for us to survive. The effects of stress on the body are far more difficult to spot than other conditions but can be just as damaging over time. Stress can cause high blood pressure, irregular heartbeats, and even heart attacks. In fact, some studies show that stress causes 25% of all coronary artery diseases and 30% of all strokes.
It also has an impact on our mental health as well. People who experience severe stress may develop anxiety disorders or depression which can lead to suicide attempts or suicide itself.
Chronic Stress Impacts More Than the Cardiovascular System
Stress has a significant impact on more than just your cardiovascular system. It also affects the immune system, digestive system, reproductive system, respiratory system, and musculoskeletal system (i.e., muscle tension). In fact, stress may cause more than one in every 10 doctors’ visits for physical symptoms like headaches or stomach problems. Most of these visits will be blamed on stress rather than something like an infectious disease or a tumor.
Stress-related disorders affect men and women differently. Men are more likely to have heart attacks during periods of high stress while women are more likely to have strokes. Women who experience high levels of chronic stress are also at greater risk for developing autoimmune diseases. Such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis than those with lower levels of chronic stress. However, this is less true in men.
Stress Can Lead to Chronic Disease
Stress can lead to chronic diseases, including heart disease and diabetes. In fact, research shows that the more stress you have in your life, the more likely you are to develop these diseases. It’s no surprise that millions of Americans suffer from chronic illnesses like heart disease and diabetes each year.
The reason for this connection is simple. Prolonged exposure to stress changes body function in ways that make it difficult for organs like the brain and liver to work properly. These changes result in increased inflammation, as well as, decreased insulin sensitivity.
Stress is a silent killer, but it doesn’t have to be. There are a number of things you can do to manage your stress and improve your health, which we’ve outlined here.
Written by Sheena Robertson
ABC 15: Americans have a concerning level of stress, report finds
PsychCentral: Diseases caused by stress
Ask Joe: Feeling stressed and distressed?
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First Inset Image Courtesy of Sodanie Chea‘s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Second Inset Image Courtesy of Chris Zúniga‘s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License