Stress is a part of life, and you do your best to deal with before it gets the best of you. It’s a natural emotional, mental and physical response to stimuli, which is both good and bad for your health.
Responsibilities to family and work, traumatic events and physical illness all elevate stress levels. Some of these stressors go on far too long and exhaust the body’s resources beyond what is necessary to survive.
Short-term stress affects you every day and is manageable with mindfulness. Chronic stress threatens your life in the long term, with adverse affects to your sleep, nutrition and wellbeing, increasing the risk of disease onset. The systems of your body respond in various ways to stress and affect each other, determining what happens to your body when stress is in excess.
Central Nervous System Puts You on Edge
The fight, flight or freeze instinct originates from a combination of reactions in your central nervous system (CNS). Think of it as your gut reaction, or the bugle boy sounding your body to quickly respond to stimuli. The hypothalamus in your brain rallies your adrenal glands to the cause, which release cortisol and adrenaline.
Different levels of these make you fight, flight or freeze. Prolonged hormone release and stress keeps the CNS, and you, on edge, increasing irritability, depression and social withdrawal. You also may attempt to check out or cope through drug use, overeating or underrating your stress levels. You’ll experience sleepless nights and little symptoms you may not consider to be serious: If you’re grinding your teeth, check your stress levels.
Respiratory and Cardiovascular Systems Building Pressure
Under stress duress, your heart and lungs work harder to pump blood and oxygen throughout the body, STAT. You breathe faster. For those who already have asthma or other respiratory ailments, chronic stress levels can be life threatening as you struggle for air.
High stress levels and a harder working heart constrict blood vessels and limit the access of oxygen and blood to your vital organs. Hypertension becomes a risk, and with it — stroke or heart attack. Add in clogged arteries from a constantly on edge CNS causing you to pick up the bad snacks, and you’re at an increased risk for developing heart disease.
Digestive System Isn’t Sweet on Stress
Under stress, your body thinks that a boost of energy will do it some good. Your digestive system isn’t sweet on stress, and its disrupted functions may lead to adverse health conditions. Initially, you glucose levels rise. But under prolonged stress, the body reabsorbs unused glucose. Eventually, your body can’t maintain this process, and you’re more likely to develop type two diabetes.
Increased hormones, an elevated heart rate and difficulty breathing all stress out your digestive system. Acid reflux and hurt burn are more likely to occur. Although stress doesn’t cause ulcers, it will contribute to flare ups of an existing condition.
Food will get held up. You’ll have no appetite. Stomachaches, vomiting, constipation, diarrhea and nausea are all reactions due to increased stress and the digestive system doing its best to do its job.
Muscular System Won’t Hold Up to all That
Achy back and shoulders? It’s the most common sign of excessive stress, but it will lead potentially chronic conditions if the high stress keeps up.
Your muscles tighten up under stress, and relax as the stress dissolves. Headaches happen for this reason, and achy muscles may lead to you avoiding exercise and turning to medication. Don’t stop working out: Exercise relieves stress and boosts overall body health.
Reproductive System Doesn’t Feel Sexy
When it comes to stress, the body makes sex as confusing as it was during puberty. Naturally, both genders won’t feel very sexy when stressed, due to other preoccupations. Cortisol is produced over testosterone and estrogen. Chronic stress leads to infection risk for sexual organs, surrounding areas and other adverse conditions.
Interestingly, men get a desire boost for sex when it comes to short-term stress, due to an increased release of testosterone. If the stress continues, testosterone levels drop. It’s true that “If you don’t use it, you lose it,” and over time, men may experience low sperm count and erectile dysfunction.
Stress will affect a woman’s menstrual cycle. Her periods will skip cycles, become delayed, heavy, painful or irregular in some other way. It will also affect her ovulation cycle and increase the difficulty of sperm implantation into the uterine wall for pregnancy.
Immune System’s Defense and Offense Weakens
In the short term, a little stress is good to “exercise” the immune system’s ability to defend the body, healing wounds and eliminating potential infection. As cortisol levels increase due to stress, the body starts to focus mainly on that task, weakening the immune system. Histamine secretion is inhibited, along with the body’s inflammatory response.
Invaders get into the body, increasing the risk of disease and infection. The body takes longer to heal and recover from illness or injury. A simple, common cold has the opportunity to become something much worse.
A little stress can be managed with awareness and self care. It’s actually good for the body’s daily functioning. However, chronic stress adversely affects multiple systems of the body, leading to an increased risk for disease, infection and life-threatening conditions.
Stress isn’t to be taken lightly. Please remember to check in with yourself and treat yourself — and your body — kindly.