How stress affects our body

How stress affects our body

Stress – either good or bad is always present but in varying degrees.  “Good” stress can be a motivator propelling us forward to work at achieving goals resulting in happiness, health and fulfillment.  But for most of us when we think of stress, we tend to think in terms of “bad” stress - dealing with money issues, finding a job, or studying for finals as examples.   In fact the top causes of stress in the United States include job pressures, money, health, relationships, poor nutrition, media overload and sleep deprivation.

Good stress can affect us both emotionally and physically but in a more mild tone that usually results in positivity and joy.  Bad stress also affects us both emotionally and physically but in a much more negative effect on our body.  Bad stress could lead to depression, anxiety, hypertension, immune system disorders, irritable bowel syndrome and even effects on our skin of eruptions of rashes, hives, or atopic dermatitis.

Stress obviously can have a wide range of effects on our emotions, mood and behavior. Equally important but often less appreciated are the effects of stress on various systems, organs and tissues all over our body. 

Here are ways in which our different body systems may react to and be impacted by stress:

·      Nervous system

When stressed – physically or psychologically – the body suddenly shifts it energy resources to fighting off the perceived threat.  In what is known as the “fight or flight” response, the sympathetic nervous system signals the adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol.  These hormones make the heart beat faster, raise blood pressure, change the digestive process and boost glucose levels in the bloodstream. Once the crisis is over, body systems usually return to normal.

·      Musculoskeletal system

Under stress, muscles tense up.  The contraction of muscles for extended periods can trigger tension headaches, migraines, and various musculoskeletal conditions.

·      Respiratory system

Stress can make you breathe harder and cause rapid breathing or hyperventilation which can bring on panic attacks in some people.

·      Cardiovascular system

Acute stress – stress that is momentary such as being stuck in traffic – causes an increase in heart rate and stronger contractions of the heart muscle.  Blood vessels that direct blood to the large muscles and to the heart dilate, increasing the amount of blood pumped to these parts of the body.  Repeated episodes of acute stress can cause inflammation in the coronary arteries, thought to lead to heart attack.

·      Endocrine system

When the body is stressed, the brain sends signals from the hypothalamus, causing the adrenal cortex to produce cortisol and the adrenal medulla to produce epinephrine – sometimes called the “stress hormones.”  When cortisol and epinephrine are released, the liver produces more glucose, a blood sugar that gives you more energy for “fight or flight” in an emergency.

·      Gastrointestinal system

Stress may prompt you to eat much more or much less than you usually do.  If you eat more or different foods or increase your use of tobacco or alcohol, you may experience heartburn, or acid reflux.  Your stomach can react with “butterflies” or even nausea or pain.  You may vomit if the stress is severe enough.  Stress can also affect digestion and which nutrients your intestines absorb.  It can also affect how quickly food moves through your body.  You may find that you have either diarrhea or constipation due to stress. 

Dealing effectively with stress

Now that you know how stress can negatively affect our body, here are some tips on dealing with stress to help manage and reduce stress levels:

·      Avoid caffeine, alcohol and nicotine. Caffeine and nicotine are stimulants and will increase stress rather than reducing it.  Alcohol is a depressant when used in large quantities but acts as a stimulant in smaller quantities.  Therefore using alcohol to alleviate stress is ultimately not helpful.

·      Increase physical activity.  When feeling stressed out, go for a brisk walk in fresh air. Try to incorporate physical activity into your daily routine on a regular basis.

·      Get more sleep.  A lack of sleep is a significant cause of stress.  Aim to go to bed at roughly the same time each night so your mind and body get used to a predictable bedtime routine.

·      Try relaxation techniques.  Each day, try to relax with a stress reduction technique – practice yoga or Pilates, stretch, meditate.

·      Talk to someone.  Just talking to someone about how you feel can be very helpful. Talking can work by either distracting you from your stressful thoughts or by releasing some of the built-up tension by discussing it.

·      Keep a stress diary.  Write down the date, time and place of each stressful situation and how you felt both physically and emotionally.  This is an effective stress management tool helping you become more aware of the situations which cause you to become stressed.

·      Manage your time.  We all feel burdened by our “to do” list.  Accept that you cannot do everything at once and start to prioritize your tasks.

·      Learn to say “no.”   A common cause of stress is having too much to do and too little time in which to do it.  Learn to say “no” to additional or unimportant requests which can help to reduce your level of stress and may also help you develop more self-confidence.

·      When ill, rest.  If you are not feeling well, do not feel that you have to carry on regardless.  A short spell of rest will enable your body to recover faster.