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How Stress Affects the Body: What to Expect and How to Combat it

2021-09-08
How Stress Affects the Body: What to Expect and How to Combat it

Have you ever felt like your whole body is tense? How about when you have a headache and your neck feels stiff? Does it feel like all of the energy in your body has been drained away? These are just some of the side effects that stress can have on the human body.

Stress affects people differently depending on their own personal characteristics as well as how they react to stressful situations. This article will cover what stress does to the human body and why it's important for us to learn techniques for managing our stress levels so we can deal with them better and improve our health.

What is Stress?

Stress is the body's response to external stimuli that has been interpreted as a threat. The stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol are released into our bloodstream in order to give us the additional strength needed for fighting or running from danger. It also causes our heart rate and breathing rates to increase so that we can access more oxygen quickly if necessary while simultaneously shutting down parts of the brain not related to immediate survival like memory. This makes sense because when faced with dangerous situations that demand your complete attention you don't need any extraneous information floating around distracting you.

What happens to your body during stress?

When something stressful is about to happen, the body acts like a ticking time bomb. Your hypothalamus, a tiny part of your brain which plays a crucial function in your regulation of emotions, sends out a signal. Cue the fight or flight stress hormones! Your heart will pound faster, your breathing gets quicker, blood pressure rises and your muscles prepare for action. This fight or flight response was designed to protect your body in an emergency situation by preparing you to react quickly to either flee the scene of danger or fight back. But when the stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline, are being released day after day, it could have serious risks to your long-term health.

Types of Stress

To work out how to manage stress, we firstly need to understand which type the sufferer is experiencing. There are three main types of stress - acute, episodic and chronic.

  • Acute stress - This is the most common type of stress and something most of us will suffer at some point. It's reactive thinking to a situation or event that's occurred or going to occur in the near future - an argument you had, a work presentation you have to do, your child having a hard time at school. The stress is always thought-induced. Thankfully, it's highly treatable and manageable and doesn't hang around long enough to do any long-term damage.
  • Episodic stress - This is a type of stress experienced by those who live with frequent acute stress or frequent triggers of stress. They tend to be the chaotic people in our lives who live a life of drama and disarray. They are often disorganised having taken on too many responsibilities, and feel rushed and pressured easily. There are two personality types who typically suffer from episodic stress, 'Type A' personality and 'The Worrier'. Type A people are fiercely competitive, aggressive, direct, impatient and have insecurities about performance. The Worrier on the other hand is that person we all know with perpetual negative thoughts. They are obsessive about projecting potential disaster in almost every situation. At their core, they believe the world is a dangerous, dark place and the people who live in it are on the precipice of disaster. They are more commonly anxious and hostile.
  • Chronic stress - The most intense, grinding stress that people carry with them on a day to day basis, quite often for years. It derives from the most unbelievable, desperate circumstances such as poverty, living through war, a deeply unhappy family situation, loathed job or suppressed early childhood trauma. The sufferer has often given up looking for solutions and is resigned to feeling this way forever - in order to break free they require professional help. It's a big step in getting help as the person often is so used to feeling stressed, they forget it's there but it can have disastrous effects and even lead to suicide, heart attacks and strokes if untreated.

Effects of Stress

Stress can embed itself within us not just mentally but also physiologically and behaviourally too. Symptoms can affect us in many different ways in the long term and short term and being able to recognise the stress symptoms can help us manage them. Stress that's left unnoticed or unmanaged can contribute to many long-lasting health problems.

Physiological Effects of Stress

We know that stress is a natural reaction to life events and experiences - your body's fight or flight response kicking into gear when something unexpected or unwanted arises. But what do we know of the physical condition these symptoms can cause us and the toll they can take on our bodies?

  • Fatigue - If you are feeling physically drained and unable to do your usual tasks, it may be that prolonged stress is the culprit. Stress not only causes insomnia but also disrupts sleep in a way that can lead to low energy levels as well as other symptoms such as fatigue.
  • Headaches - Headaches can often be triggered by stress. This is because when a person experiences anxiety or frustration, the blood vessels in their head enlarge and are more likely to rupture. The release of adrenaline that occurs during this time also causes dilation and constriction as well as other changes in hormones which alters brain chemistry causing headaches for some people.
  • Vertigo - Stress and anxiety can contribute to dysfunction of your vestibular system, which may lead to dizziness or vertigo. Read more about it in our article: Can stress cause vertigo? [LINK TO ARTICLE]
  • Muscle tension - It is a reflex reaction to stress that tenses up our muscles. Sudden onset of stress will cause your muscles to tighten, but they will release the tension as soon as it passes.
  • Erectile dysfunction - Stress and anxiety can put the brakes on your ability to get an erection. The brain sends messages with a series of chemical signals that allow the blood vessels in your penis to relax and expand so more blood flows into it. Stress and worry about erectile dysfunction (ED) may disrupt these nerve pathways and prevent you from getting or maintaining an erection when under pressure—or at all. These worries might also lead you into cycles of ongoing ED because they are linked with behavioural changes such as avoiding sex altogether.
  • Rapid heart beat - When you are stressed, your body releases hormones such as adrenaline which is the fight or flight hormone. Adrenaline makes your heart beat faster and raises blood pressure as a way of coping with the situation.
  • Digestive problems - Stress wreaks havoc on your stomach. In some people, it slows down digestion causing bloating and constipation while in others it speeds up the process which can lead to diarrhoea or frequent trips to the toilet. Some experience a loss of appetite completely due to stress. In fact, stress has been known to worsen conditions such as ulcers or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
  • Insomnia and sleeplessness - One of the most common symptoms of stress is sleep deprivation. When a person has been in this heightened state for an extended amount of time, their body will start to build up adrenaline and produce excessive levels cortisol which can disrupt healthy sleep patterns. Unfortunately, chronic stress can lead to overexposure that may result in prolonged periods without rest - which only worsens any negative feelings or thoughts the sufferer is experiencing from being stressed out!
  • Frequent illnesses - When your immune system is under constant stress, it's harder for you to fight off the common cold or a cough. Stress causes inflammation in the body which weakens its immunity against viruses like a sore throat or flu onset that make people more susceptible to chronic conditions such as arthritis. When we're constantly stressed, we don't typically take care of ourselves properly; meaning we may find illnesses sticking around for too long due to a lack of nutrients necessary for healing.
  • Hand tremors - When you're feeling stressed, your muscles are more likely to tense up due to the anticipation of a harmful event. This is partially because anxiety triggers an adrenaline response in our body that prepares us for any emergency situation. Your muscles may also twitch or shake as psychogenic tremors kick into overdrive during this time, hence 'shaky hand'.
  • Nosebleeds - Stress is a major contributor to nosebleeds, but it's not the only cause. If you have high blood pressure and are prone to picking or blowing your nose when under stress, they may be contributing factors in triggering a bleeding episode too.
  • Dry mouth - Because humans are prone to stress during intense periods, the body's natural response is often acidic and can affect salivary glands. A lack of saliva may lead to a dry mouth feeling as well as sticky or bad taste sensation due to the lack of moisture content.
  • Acid reflux - Stress can also deplete the production of substances called prostaglandins, which normally protect your stomach from the damaging effects of acid. This could lead to an increased perception in discomfort and more bodily changes that increase heartburn symptoms. Stress coupled with exhaustion may present even more serious changes leading to an increased risk for reflux disease or GERD.
  • Grinding teeth - You're not alone if you grind your teeth and clench your jaws when stressed, but it can cause a number of problems down the line. For instance, many people who do this complain about pain in their face or headaches. This can usually be alleviated by breaking up jaw clenching with light exercises like chewing gum. Bruxism has also been shown to wear away at tooth enamel over long periods of time which leaves them more vulnerable to cavities.

Mental Effects of Stress

Many people experience emotional symptoms of stress including becoming easily agitated, frustrated and moody. You might also feel overwhelmed as though you need to take control or you will 'lose it'. Feeling bad about yourself and low self-esteem can lead to loneliness, worthlessness, sadness; even avoidance of others at times. This is often felt by those whose careers have strong emotional ties. They may have difficulty meeting goals set for themselves in the workplace which can lead to feelings of guilt and failure.

Stress has been known to affect people's cognitive abilities and causes an array of symptoms like forgetfulness, disorganisation and poor judgment skills which can lead to pessimism. In fact, stress is capable of affecting your mind in such a way that you may lose focus on what was once important or even forget important things entirely. It also makes judgements seem cloudy, causing many issues when making decisions during already tough times.

Behavioural symptoms of stress are often not immediately apparent, but might include changes in appetite (either eating less or more), and avoidance behaviours such as procrastination. Symptoms also may manifest themselves through increased use of alcohol and cigarettes, nervous habits like nail-biting or pacing.

Behavioural signs can be difficult for others to notice because many people respond differently depending on their personality types: some feel anxious while others become depressed.

Long-Term Effects of Stress

A little bit of stress can sometimes seen as a good thing to boost adrenaline and buoyancy, but it can be harmful when it becomes too much. Chronic stress has been linked to serious health problems such as heart disease and depression. It's important not just for your mental wellbeing but also physical well-being that you find ways to relieve the stresses in your life so they don't become overwhelming or grow worse over time. Long-term effects of stress:

  • Depression & anxiety - When faced with a stressful situation, the body's natural response is to release hormones such as cortisol. This 'stress hormone' has many beneficial effects in acute situations like an animal running from its predator but can have detrimental consequences when sustained for long periods of time. For example, high levels of stress cause serotonin and other neurotransmitters in your brain to decrease (including dopamine), which are linked to depression. Luckily, there are ways you can manage your exposure so it doesn't get out of hand; one way is by recognising how chronic physical activity affects our emotions because increased heart rate triggers changes within the entire nervous system including moods.
  • Higher blood pressure - Stress by itself doesn't cause high blood pressure, but it does raise your heart rate and narrows the arteries. That's why stress is such a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Your body produces hormones when you're in stressful situations that temporarily increase your blood pressure by causing an increased heartbeat and narrowed vessels. This releases more adrenaline into our bloodstream and it's this surge of chemicals at heightened levels which makes us feel tense or on edge.
  • Menstrual problems - When we're stressed our hormones are disrupted. One hormone cortisol can delay, or even prevent, ovulation. It also interferes with the production of progesterone and decreased levels in this hormone could mean spotting when you are stressed out. These periods may be more painful periods and heavier than normal.
  • Miscarriage - although stress doesn't directly cause miscarriage, it can indirectly lead to the inability of a foetus or embryo to thrive. Stress is associated with lower levels of folate which can result in neural tube defects and other issues for an unborn child. For women who are pregnant, miscarriages may be more common due to increased hormone production during pregnancy that makes them less likely able to handle stress factors as effectively as they were before becoming pregnant.
  • Reproductive system dysfunction - scientists have discovered that stress affects the production of sex hormones, the menstrual cycle and can even lead to infertility. Stress also suppresses sperm production, ovulation, and sexual activity in both males and females by inhibiting a hormone called GnRH (Gonadotropin-releasing hormone). It does this through cortisol which is one type of glucocorticoid or 'stress' hormone.
  • Skin problems - Some common skin conditions are caused by stress. When facing any kind of stressful situation, the body releases hormones that can adversely affect your health in many ways, including causing acne and eczema. Another way this is due to stress: when we're stressed out our bodies don't produce enough sebum which leads to dryness (seborrheic dermatitis) or too much oil production leading to clogged pores (acne). Those who suffer from psoriasis experience a buildup of cells on their scalp area and ichthyosis sufferers have thickened skin with cracked scales; both diseases cause itching along with other symptoms like burning sensations and red patches.
  • Hair loss - Stress-related hair loss is a natural reaction to a traumatic event or situation such as the death of someone close. The body responds by producing more cortisol and this hormone causes your hair follicles to shrink and produce fewer hairs per day. Without treatment, it can take 6-9 months for you have full head of healthy looking locks again but there are treatments available if you see your GP.

How to Manage Stress

Stress doesn't always 'just go away' and to avoid long term effects, you need to take back control and focus on those elements of your life which you have control over or can plan for.

Try to prioritise your time a little better by writing a list of things to achieve with small steps on how to reach each goal. You'll find the act of putting pen to paper and seeing it in black and white will help your mind feel more at ease and those previously out-of-reach objectives will feel more attainable.

Part of your list should be scheduling in me-time. It might be half an hour at the end of the day to read a book, meet a friend, go for a walk or take time cooking a healthy meal from scratch. Don't check emails and allow yourself to 'let go' during this time.

Yoga and meditation have been proven to help relaxation and refresh body, mind and soul which will stave off feelings of stress and anxiety. Yours app features hundreds of hours of yoga classes to suit every need, and breathing, relaxation and meditation courses for beginners and teens. It's important to stay active to clear your thoughts and get the blood flow pumping and endorphins racing but if you're short on time simply putting in your earphones at bedtime and drifting off to a soothing Yours app sleep story will help induce a deeper, more refreshing sleep.

Look for the positives in life - some people swear by keeping a gratitude diary and writing down three things they're thankful for that day. Try it and you may be surprised at how many uplifting, wonderful people and things you have in your life.

Likewise, NHS Inform recommend keeping a stress diary to recognise things that trigger you over the course of 2 - 4 weeks. After this period, review it to see what causes an episode and where you might be able to get help. Try to note down:

  • Time, place and place of the stressful episode
  • What you were doing 
  • Who you were with 
  • How you felt emotionally 
  • What your thoughts were 
  • What you started doing 
  • How you felt physically 
  • Give a stress rating between 0 and 10 (where 10 is the highest level of stress). 

Finally, avoid alcohol, caffeine and cigarettes! These things provide short term fixes only and can be harmful if you start to rely on them.

When to See a Doctor

If the self-management tips above don't help and stress is causing you significant suffering to the point of affecting your everyday life and relationships, then you should see your GP. He or she may refer you to a counsellor or recommend another form of cognitive behavioural treatment. Your stress may be causing you serious health problems such as high blood pressure so it's key to seek help so professionals can aid your recovery in full. Remember, there's no reason to feel hesitant or intimidated - according to the NHS, mental health issues are accountable for 1 in 5 GP visits.

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