Stress is often described as feeling overwhelmed, worried or run-down. It affects people of all ages, genders and circumstances and can lead to both physical and psychological health issues. By definition, stress is any uncomfortable “emotional experience accompanied by predictable biochemical, physiological and behavioral changes”. Some stress can be beneficial at times, producing a boost that provides the drive and energy to help people get through situations like exams or work deadlines. However, extreme and/or chronic stress can have health consequences and adversely affect our musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, digestive, nervous, reproductive & immune systems.
When the body is stressed, muscles tense up. Muscle tension is our reflex reaction to stress — the body’s way of guarding against injury and pain. Chronic stress causes the muscles in the body to be in a more or less constant state of guardedness. When muscles are tense for long periods of time, this may trigger other reactions of the body and even promote stress-related disorders. For example, both tension-type headache and migraine headache are associated with chronic muscle tension in the area of the shoulders, neck and head.
Individuals who are fearful of pain and re-injury, and who seek only a physical cause and cure for the injury, generally have a worse recovery than individuals who maintain a certain level of moderate activity. Muscle tension, and eventually, muscle atrophy due to disuse of the body, all promote chronic, stress-related musculoskeletal conditions.
Relaxation techniques have been shown to effectively reduce muscle tension, decrease the incidence of certain stress-related disorders, such as headache, and increase a sense of well-being.
Stress can also cause our breathing to be shallow and irregular, and can lead to hyperventilation and panic attacks. Deep breathing helps us remain in a relaxed state and helps increase circulation in the body.
Chronic stress, or a constant stress experienced over a prolonged period of time, can contribute to long-term problems for heart and blood vessels. The consistent and ongoing increase in heart rate, and the elevated levels of stress hormones and of blood pressure, can take a toll on the body. This long-term ongoing stress can increase the risk for hypertension, heart attack or stroke.
Repeated acute stress and persistent chronic stress may also contribute to inflammation in the circulatory system, particularly in the coronary arteries, and this is one pathway that is thought to tie stress to heart attack. Daily movement & deep breathing promote healthy circulation; which helps to counter the effects of stress.
When the body is stressed, the hypothalamus signals the adrenal cortex to produce cortisol and the adrenal medulla to produce epinephrine. This starts the process that gives your body the energy to run from danger.
When you’re stressed, your brain becomes more alert to sensations in your stomach. Your stomach can react with “butterflies” or even nausea or pain. You may vomit if the stress is severe enough. And, if the stress becomes chronic, you may develop ulcers or severe stomach pain even without ulcers.
When cortisol and epinephrine are released, the liver produces more glucose, a blood sugar that would give you the energy for “fight or flight” in an emergency. For most of you, if you don’t use all of that extra energy, the body is able to reabsorb the blood sugar, even if you’re stressed again and again. But for some people — especially people vulnerable to Type 2 diabetes — that extra blood sugar can mean diabetes.
Studies show that if you learn how to manage stress, you can control your blood sugar level as much as you could with medication.
Stress can affect digestion, and what nutrients your intestines absorb. It can also affect how fast food moves through your body. You may find that you have either diarrhea or constipation.
When the body is stressed, the nervous system generates what is known as the “fight or flight” response. The body shifts all of its energy resources toward fighting off a life threat, or fleeing from an enemy. The nervous system signals the adrenal glands to release hormones called adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones cause the heart to beat faster, respiration rate to increase, blood vessels in the arms and legs to dilate, digestive process to change and glucose levels (sugar energy) in the bloodstream to increase to deal with the emergency.
This response is fairly sudden in order to prepare the body to respond to the situation at hand. Once the crisis is over, the body usually returns to the pre-emergency, unstressed state.
Experiencing stressors chronically over a prolonged period of time, can result in a long-term drain on the body. As the nervous system continues to trigger physical reactions, it causes a wear-and-tear on the body. It’s not so much what chronic stress does to the nervous system, but what continuous activation of the nervous system does to other bodily systems that become problematic.
Male Reproductive System
Excess amounts of cortisol can affect the normal biochemical functioning of the male reproductive system.
Chronic stress can affect testosterone production, sperm production and maturation, and even cause erectile dysfunction or impotence.
Also, when stress affects the immune system, the body can become vulnerable to infection. In the male anatomy, infections to the testes, prostate gland and urethra, can affect normal male reproductive functioning.
Female Reproductive System
Stress may affect menstruation in several ways. For example, high levels of stress are associated with absent or irregular menstrual cycles, more painful periods and changes in the length of cycles.
As menopause approaches, hormone levels fluctuate rapidly. These changes are associated with anxiety, mood swings and feelings of distress. Thus menopause can be a stressor in and of itself. Some of the physical changes associated with menopause, especially hot flashes, can be difficult to cope with. Furthermore, emotional distress may cause the physical symptoms to be worse. For example, women who are more anxious may experience an increased number of hot flashes and/or more severe or intense hot flashes.
Stress creates chronic inflammatory conditions throughout the body. This along with the issues stress causes in our other systems, creates an endless amount of work for our immune system, eventually weakening it over time.
How we respond to stressors makes a huge difference. Know what soothes your soul and make sure it’s part of your daily routine. For me that’s daily movement, being in nature, and time alone to unwind and reflect. In addition, support your body with the right foods & nutrients, and minimize your exposure to sugar, processed & fried foods that make your body’s job more difficult.