Australians are more stressed than ever before, and our mental health impacts more than just our mood and wellbeing. You may know of people who (or you yourself may) stress-eat, lie awake in bed because of stress, have stress-induced headaches, and be moody because of stress. But what is stress, what are the effects of stress on the body, and what can you do about it?
Stress is an inevitable part of life, but what happens when it starts to affect our health?
What exactly does chronic stress do to our bodies? What exactly is the impact of stress and on our physical and psychological health?
How can we manage stress better when we’re in the middle of a stressful period to minimize the long-term impact?
Stress symptoms may be affecting your health, even though you might not realize it. You may think illness is to blame for that irritating headache, your frequent insomnia or your decreased productivity at work. But stress may actually be the cause.
We all feel stressed from time to time – it’s all part of the emotional ups and downs of life. Stress has many sources, it can come from our environment, from our bodies, or our own thoughts and how we view the world around us. It is very natural to feel stressed around moments of pressure. However, we are physiologically designed to deal with stress, and react to it.
Stress can actually be positive. The stress response helps us stay alert, motivated and focused on the task at hand. Usually, when the pressure subsides, the body rebalances and we start to feel calm again. But when we experience stress too often or for too long, or when the negative feelings overwhelm our ability to cope, then problems will arise. Continuous activation of the nervous system – experiencing the “stress response” – causes wear and tear on the body.
Effects of stress on the body
When we feel under pressure the nervous system instructs our bodies to release stress hormones including adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. These produce physiological changes to help us cope with the threat or danger we see to be upon us. This is called the “stress response” or the “fight-or-flight” response.
Indeed, stress symptoms can affect your body, your thoughts and feelings, and your behavior. Being able to recognize common stress symptoms can help you manage them. Stress that’s left unchecked can contribute to many health problems, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes.
Respiratory and cardiovascular systems
When we are stressed, the respiratory system is immediately affected. We tend to breathe harder and more quickly in an effort to quickly distribute oxygen-rich blood around our body. Although this is not an issue for most of us, it could be a problem for people with asthma who may feel short of breath and struggle to take in enough oxygen. It can also cause quick and shallow breathing, where minimal air is taken in, which can lead to hyperventilation. This is more likely if someone is prone to anxiety and panic attacks.
There are cardiovascular effects. When stress is acute (in the moment), heart rate and blood pressure increase, but they return to normal once the acute stress has passed. If acute stress is repeatedly experienced, or if stress becomes chronic (over a long period of time) it can cause damage to blood vessels and arteries. This increases the risk for hypertension, heart attack or stroke.
Stress wreaks havoc on our immune systems. Cortisol released in our bodies suppresses the immune system and inflammatory pathways, and we become more susceptible to infections and chronic inflammatory conditions. Over time, stress hormones will weaken your immune system and reduce your body’s response to foreign invaders. People under chronic stress are more susceptible to viral illnesses like the flu and the common cold, as well as other infections. Stress can also increase the time it takes you to recover from an illness or injury.
Prolonged exposure to cortisol and adrenaline can weaken the immune system and cause more infections. These can include common respiratory infections such as colds, as well as H. pylori infections, which are linked to ulcers
Your muscles tense up to protect themselves from injury when you’re stressed. They tend to release again once you relax, but if you’re constantly under stress, your muscles may not get the chance to relax. Tight muscles cause headaches, back and shoulder pain, and body aches. Over time, this can set off an unhealthy cycle as you stop exercising and turn to pain medication for relief.
This system plays an important role in regulating mood, growth and development, tissue function, metabolism and reproductive processes. Our metabolism is affected. The hypothalamus is located in the brain and it plays a key role in connecting the endocrine system with the nervous system. Stress signals coming from the hypothalamus trigger the release of stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine, and then blood sugar (glucose) is produced by the liver to provide you with energy to deal with the stressful situation. Most people reabsorb the extra blood sugar when the stress subsides, but for some people there is an increased risk of diabetes.
When someone perceives a situation to be challenging, threatening, or uncontrollable, the brain initiates a cascade of events involving the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is the primary driver of the endocrine stress response. This ultimately results in an increase in the production of steroid hormones called glucocorticoids, which include cortisol, often referred to as the “stress hormone”.
Stress can have some unpleasant gastrointestinal effects. Under stress, your liver produces extra blood sugar (glucose) to give you a boost of energy. If you’re under chronic stress, your body may not be able to keep up with this extra glucose surge. Chronic stress may increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
The rush of hormones, rapid breathing, and increased heart rate can also upset your digestive system. You’re more likely to have heartburn or acid reflux thanks to an increase in stomach acid. Stress doesn’t cause ulcers (a bacterium called H. pylori often does), but it can increase your risk for them and cause existing ulcers to act up.
Stress can also affect the way food moves through your body, leading to diarrhea or constipation. You might also experience nausea, vomiting, or a stomachache.
Sexuality and reproductive system
There can be problems with our reproductive systems too. For men, chronic stress may affect the production of testosterone and sperm. It may even lead to erectile dysfunction or impotence. Women can experience changes to their menstrual cycles and increased premenstrual symptoms.
Stress and your mind
Stress has marked effects on our emotional well-being. It is normal to experience high and low moods in our daily lives. When we are stressed we may feel more tired, have mood swings or feel more irritable than usual. Stress causes hyperarousal. This means we may have difficulty falling or staying asleep and experience restless nights. In time this impairs concentration, attention, learning and memory, all of which are particularly important around exam time. Researchers have linked poor sleep to chronic health problems, depression and even obesity.
The way that we cope with stress has an additional, indirect effect on our health. Under pressure, people may adopt more harmful habits such as smoking, drinking too much alcohol or taking drugs to relieve stress. But these behaviours are inappropriate ways to adapt and only lead to more health problems and risks to our personal safety and well-being.
So learn to manage your stress, before it manages you. It’s all about keeping it in check. Some stress in life is normal – and a little stress can help us to feel alert, motivated, focused, energetic and even excited. Take positive actions to channel this energy effectively and you may find yourself performing better, achieving more and feeling good.
Act to manage stress
Of course, it’s difficult to tell someone “don’t get stressed,” but we can employ certain buffers to try to make sure stressful events aren’t as hard on our bodies as they might otherwise be.
Too much unmanaged stress can be harmful, but reducing stress where possible and managing the rest can keep it from being overwhelming. The right amount of stress, managed well, can even be healthy!
Reducing stress may include letting go of things you cannot control.
If you have stress symptoms, taking steps to manage your stress can have many health benefits. Explore stress management strategies, such as:
- Exercise regularly – regular exercise is a great way to manage stress. You should do some form of exercise that causes you to feel puffed afterwards – a leisurely stroll to the bus stop is not enough! Have at least 20 minutes of exercise three times a week
- Avoid conflict – avoid situations that make you feel stressed such as unnecessary arguments and conflict (although ignoring a problem is not always the best way to reduce stress). Assertiveness is fine but becoming distressed is not
- Relax – give yourself some time to relax each day and try to spend time with people who make you feel good about yourself
- Eat well – a nutritious diet is important. Eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables and avoid sweet and fatty foods
- Sleep – a good sleep routine is essential. If you have difficulty falling asleep, do something calm and relaxing before you go to bed like listening to music or reading
- Enjoy your life – it’s important to make time to have some fun and to get a balance in your life.
To deal with stress more effectively, it helps to investigate your stresses and how you react to them.
- Understand what situations make you feel stressed
- Understand what situations you can and can’t control
- Prepare for stressful events in advance, by thinking about the future
- Keep yourself healthy with good nutrition, exercise and regular relaxation
- Try to do happy things every day.
Aim to find active ways to manage your stress. Inactive ways to manage stress — such as watching television, surfing the internet or playing video games — may seem relaxing, but they may increase your stress over the long term.
And be sure to get plenty of sleep and eat a healthy, balanced diet. Avoid tobacco use, excess caffeine and alcohol, and the use of illegal substances.
Moderate acute stress doesn’t do us much harm. The body’s responses to moderate acute stress are generally beneficial, In that they help us combat the stress (including physical stressors like disease and injury, but also psychological stressors like public speaking) and bring our bodies back to equilibrium again. These responses help us make sure we stay away from dangerous situations and that we remember how to handle them if we encounter them again. However, when the stress is very severe or continues for a very long time, it can become chronic and that’s when it can negatively impact our health.