Stress is defined as mental or physical strain, pressure, tension, worry or anxiety. We all have stress in our lives, but repeated and unrelenting stress can lead to serious health issues. This article will provide an explanation of the physical effects stress has on the body, as well as tips and ideas to help you to better cope and decrease the effects of stress in your life.
According to the Mayo Clinic, in addition to physical threats, stress has psychological causes: work, relationships, major life changes, illness and death of a loved one. The less control you feel in your life and the more uncertainty you are dealing with, the more likely you are to feel stressed.
The National Institute of Health describes stress as crucial to our survival. The stress that we’re adapted to deal with, however, is the short, intense kind and modern life gives us little time between periods of stress for our body to recuperate. This chronic stress eventually takes both a mental and physical toll.
WebMD Stress Stats:
- Forty-three percent of all adults suffer adverse health effects from stress.
- Seventy-five to 90% of all doctor's office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints.
- Stress can play a part in problems such as headaches, high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes, skin conditions, asthma, or arthritis in addition to depression and anxiety.
- The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) declared stress a hazard of the workplace. Stress costs American industry more than $300 billion annually.
- The lifetime prevalence of an emotional disorder is more than 50%, often due to chronic, untreated stress reactions.
What Happens When You Are Exposed to Stress?
The hypothalamus, a tiny region at the base of the brain, sets off an alarm system in the body. Nerve and hormonal signals prompt the release of adrenaline and cortisol. This alarm system also communicates with areas in the brain that control mood, motivation and fear.
Adrenaline: increases heart rate, elevates blood pressure and affects energy supplies **
Cortisol: curbs functions that would be non-essential in a fight/flight situation; suppresses the digestive system, reproductive system and growth processes; alters immune responses.
The human body was designed to handle threats, with what is known as the “flight or fight” response. Original threats to man were predators and aggressors, but today we face different kinds threats, and the body’s mechanism that was created to deal with physical dangers is not as effective at dealing with stress related symptoms.
The stress response system is self-regulating – hormone levels and the body return to normal once the crisis has passed…your heart rate and blood pressure return to normal, as do other systems and body functions.
Long term activation of the stress response system and subsequent overexposure to cortisol and stress hormones can disrupt almost all of the body’s processes increasing risk for:
- Digestive problems
- Heart disease
- Memory impairment
- Physical illness
Also, any restriction to your blood supply due to a condition like clogged arteries, the heart may be unable to cope with the demands placed on it. Therefore stress may not be a direct cause of heart disease, but it can aggravate previously existing conditions and create additional problems such an arrhythmia (irregular heart beat), palpitations and skipped beats.
Stress may even cause weight gain! Not only do many people eat in response to emotional issues, but a recent study at Georgetown University Medical Center showed that mice under stress gained extra weight even if their calorie intake didn’t go up, leading the study’s senior author, Dr. Zofia Zukowska, to comment: “Stress seems to release a chemical reaction that triggers fat cells to grow and multiply in number”. And unfortunately this weight is often in the abdominal area, a dangerous place since it can increase the risk of disease, such as hypertension, diabetes and heart disease.
Other Effects of Stress on Systems in the Body:
Content provided by MayoClinic.com (www.mayclinic.com)
Stress symptoms often mimic symptoms of other problems. You may think illness is to blame for that nagging headache, your frequent forgetfulness or your decreased productivity at work. But the common denominator may be stress. Indeed, stress symptoms can affect your body, your thoughts and feelings, and your behavior. Stress may be affecting your health, and you may not even realize it. Recognize common stress symptoms - then take steps to manage them.
Effects of Stress:
- Chest pain
- Pounding heart
- High blood pressure
- Shortness of breath
- Muscle aches
- Back pain
- Clenched jaws
- Tooth grinding
- Stomach upset
- Increased sweating
- Sleep problems
- Weight gain or loss
- Sex problems
- Skin breakouts
- Mood swings
- Job dissatisfaction
- Feeling insecure
- Inability to concentrate
- Seeing only the negatives
- Angry outbursts
- Drug abuse
- Excessive drinking
- Increased smoking
- Social withdrawal
- Crying spells
- Relationship conflicts
- Decreased productivity
- Blaming others
According to Holistic Online.com
Stress impacts the entire body and has an impact on physical health:
- Central Nervous System: Anxiety, depression, and fatigue
- Cardiovascular System: Impaired heart function; can cause angina, and constriction of the peripheral blood vessels, thereby raising blood pressure. Chronic activation of stress hormones can raise your heart rate and increase your blood pressure and blood lipid (cholesterol and triglyceride) levels. These are risk factors for both heart disease and stroke. Cortisol levels also appear to play a role in the accumulation of abdominal fat, which gives some people an "apple" shape. People with apple body shapes have a higher risk of heart disease and diabetes than do people with "pear" body shapes, in which weight is more concentrated in the hips.
- Digestive System: Stomach upsets, even ulcers, diarrhea;gastritis, peptic ulcers, colitis, and Irritable Bowel Syndrome. It's common to have a stomachache or diarrhea when you're stressed. This happens because stress hormones slow the release of stomach acid and the emptying of the stomach. The same hormones also stimulate the colon, which speeds the passage of its contents. Chronic hormone-induced changes can increase your appetite and put you at risk of weight gain.
- Endocrine System: Menstrual disorders;thyroid disorders (underactive, overactive, thyroiditis); adrenal hypofunction
- Immune System: Weakened defenses, with lowered resistance to infections; viral illnesses (often due to a depleted immune defense system); allergies; malignant cell changes (cancer)Your immune system is a complex balancing act between components that operate as an all-purpose emergency crew and more specialized components that deal with specific disease agents. The immune system, like the hormone system, evolved so that it could quickly deal with physical threats. Indeed, cortisol is one factor that prompts the system to reprioritize its tasks. These shifting priorities are essential for priming the immune system to respond quickly to injuries, like creating inflammation around a bite or puncture wound, but these changes are not beneficial in the long run. When you experience chronic stress, some features of your immune system may remain suppressed, making you susceptible to infections. Other features of the immune system may be permitted to run unchecked, increasing your risk of autoimmune diseases, in which your immune system attacks your body's own healthy cells. Stress may also worsen the symptoms of an autoimmune disease. For example, stress can trigger lupus flare-ups.
- Musculoskeletal System: Tension in skeletal muscles and joints, leading to backache and muscular aches and pains; predisposition to arthritis; degenerative diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis
- Nervous system: Certain byproducts of cortisol act as sedatives, which can contribute to an overall feeling of depression. If your fight-or-flight response never shuts off, the stress hormones may contribute to persistent and severe depression, as well as feelings of anxiety, helplessness and impending doom. Such stress-induced depression often results in sleep disturbances, loss of sex drive and loss of appetite. It also may make you more vulnerable to developing certain personality or behavioral disorders. Studies also suggest that chronic activation of stress hormones may alter the operation and structure of brain cells that are critical for memory formation and function.
- Reproductive System: Infertility; premature ejaculation,iImpotence
- Respiratory System: Asthma
- Skin: Stress worsens many skin conditions - such as psoriasis, eczema, hives and acne general tissue degeneration, and acceleration of aging process
Why We All React Differently To Stress:
Your reaction to a potentially stressful event is different from anyone else's. Some people are naturally laid-back about almost everything, while others react strongly at the slightest hint of stress - but most fall somewhere between those extremes.
Genetic variations may partly explain the differences. The genes that control the stress response keep most people on a fairly even keel, only occasionally priming the body for fight or flight. Overactive or underactive stress responses may stem from slight differences in these genes.
Life experiences may increase your sensitivity to stress as well. Strong stress reactions sometimes can be traced to early environmental factors. People who were exposed to extremely stressful events as children, such as neglect or abuse, tend to be particularly vulnerable to stress as adults.
Two things that affect how much stress people feel are self-esteem and a sense of control. Workers who feel more in control at their jobs tend to feel less stress. People with low self-esteem produce more cortisol when they’re asked to do something that’s not easy for them, like speak in front of other people. They also don’t become accustomed to the stress even after doing something several times and continue to produce high levels of cortisol.
It’s not easy to change things like self-esteem and your sense of control at work, but there are things you can do to help you cope with the stresses of modern life.
Factors That Can Contribue to Stress:
Sleep deprivation is a major issue. People who are stressed out tend to get less quality sleep. And sleep deprivation affects your ability to control your mood and make good decisions. It also throws the stress hormones in your body off balance. If you’re sleep deprived blood pressure and cortisol don’t go down at night like they should.
People who are stressed out tend to do other things that make their body less healthy and more vulnerable to the effects of stress. Many eat more fatty comfort foods, which can lead to obesity and diabetes. They may smoke or drink more, raising the risk for cancer and other diseases. And they often feel they’re just too busy to exercise.
Relieving and Managing Stress:
Stressful events are a fact of life - even reading about stress can be stressful!! But you can take steps to manage the impact of stress. Learn to identify what stresses you out, and find ways to better handle stress-inducing circumstances.
Eating right, exercising and eliminating "toxic" people from you life can go a long way in reducing your stress levels. Learning to relax can have a major impact, so take the time to incorporate relaxation techniques into your life. Some articles that you may find of interest: Exercise/QiGong, Healthy Breathing, Meditation, Mind-Body Connection, Relaxation Techniques, Sleep Disorders, and Visualization.
The best ways to reduce the impact of stress in your life:
- Get enough sleep.
- Exercise and control your diet.
- Build a social support network.
- Create peaceful times in your day.
- Try different relaxation methods until you find one that works for you.
- Don’t smoke.
- Don’t drink too much or abuse any other substances.
- Do things every day that make you feel good about yourself -mentally and physically.
Other things to try:
- Listen to music – this is a great stress relieving tool
- Aromatherapy – our sense of smell is tied to mood, lavender is said to be a soothing scent
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation Exercise: tense and then relax the muscle. Begin in the face by making a grimace and then relaxing the facial muscles. Then move on to the neck, shoulders, and continue on to the rest of the body until you feel calmer and more relaxed.
- Try smiling – it is hard to feel bad when you have a smile on your face!!
If you still find yourself too stressed out, consult with a health care professional. The effects of being chronically stressed are too serious to simply accept as a fact of modern life.