Effects of Stress on the Body: Symptoms and Prevention
It’s safe to say that it’s been a stressful few years. On top of our busy lives, the state of the world has pushed stress levels to new highs. Even prior to the pandemic, polls showed that Americans are among the most stressed people in the world. And those stress levels have serious effects on the body.
What exactly is stress, and how does it impact our health and well-being? How do we relieve or prevent the symptoms of stress? We’re going to dig into these questions below and give you some simple science-backed tips for how to manage it.
Stress is our body’s natural response to pressure. It’s a feeling of emotional or physical tension that can be invoked by any event or thought that makes you feel nervous, angry, or frustrated. It’s your body’s reaction to a challenge or demand, and it’s part of our natural survival instincts.
Acute stress is when you feel the pressure of an intense situation in the moment. When something has made you feel unsafe or insecure, your fight-or-flight response is activated and the body does what it needs to do to get you through what it considers a dangerous situation. It’s your body’s way of saying “all hands on deck” to protect itself, and as you can imagine, this was particularly helpful in our hunter-gatherer pasts when danger presented itself.
Chronic stress is what happens when you’re on edge after the immediate danger has passed. When stress is chronic, it means that your central nervous system has put your body in self-preservation mode when it doesn’t need to be, and resources are diverted from normal operations. This can have adverse effects on your health in the long run.
When your brain perceives a threat, the fear center of the brain–the amygdala–is activated and it kicks things into overdrive, releasing a flood of stress hormones to help you get through the hard time. These hormones (predominantly cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine) make your brain more alert, cause your muscles to tense up, spike your glucose levels, and kick your heart rate and blood flow into overdrive.
In the short term, these reactions are helpful because they can help you handle the situation at hand. In these short bursts, stress can be positive, helping you avoid danger, meet a deadline, or ski down a steep, intense slope.
Keeping us alert and ready to avoid danger is a residual evolutionary hangover that has both positive and negative effects on us. While there are some positive forms of stress, stress becomes negative when a person faces repeated challenges back-to-back without any reprieve or chance to catch their breath between the occurrences.
That’s when stress-related tension begins to build.
Stress can have serious impacts on different bodily symptoms, and because no two bodies are exactly the same, neither are our experiences and reactions to stress. Our ability to cope is dependent on lots of different factors, like genetics and socioeconomic circumstances; however, there are some common symptoms of stress that we can all learn to recognize.
Physical symptoms can include headaches, upset stomachs, blood pressure increases, chest pain, and problems with sleeping. Some research has also linked long-term stress to gastrointestinal conditions like IBS and stomach ulcers.
Mental health symptoms can include depression, anxiety, and even memory loss. According to Dr. Kerry Ressler, chief science officer at McLean Hospital and psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School, “the basic idea is that the brain is shunting its resources because it’s in survival mode, not memory mode.”
Long-Term Impacts of Stress
When stress is chronic, it means that your body is staying on red alert even though there’s no immediate danger. Over prolonged periods of time, this puts you at risk for health problems like high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, depression, anxiety, skin conditions like acne and eczema, and even menstrual problems.
Some signs that stress might be affecting you are digestive problems (including diarrhea and constipation), forgetfulness, frequent body aches and pains, headaches, lack of energy and focus, stiff jaw or neck, fatigue, sleeping problems, upset stomach, and weight fluctuations.
When it begins to have a negative impact on your mental and physical health, there are a few steps you can take to manage stress.
Recognize the Issue
It can be easy to ignore the warning signs that you are experiencing chronic stress. It’s important to recognize what is happening around you and when it’s having a problematic effect on your health. Left unchecked, excessive and prolonged stress can lead to burnout.
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Take Control of Your Situation
If you’re in a state of constant stress, it might be because you’re in a situation that’s consistently distressing or demanding. Take stock and try to identify what stressful life events might be behind your stress symptoms and potentially address the risk factor at the root.
Perhaps your responsibilities at work have changed or you’re making a big move to a new city. Once you know what it is, you can assess whether or not it’s something that you can change for the better.
Getting enough nutrients can help your body and brain through the rough patches. A healthy diet essentially helps ensure that your health systems are equipped with some of the important tools they need to address the symptoms of stress.
A growing body of research shows that practicing certain mindfulness techniques and establishing a deeper mind-body connection can actually help manage stress and anxiety. Meditation, for example, has been shown to help lower blood pressure and bring your brain out of fight-or-flight response mode.
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If you’re experiencing symptoms of chronic stress and aren’t sure where to start, it’s never a bad idea to seek help from a medical professional. From Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to massage therapy, there are lots of options out there and professionals ready to help you.
Physical exercise can be helpful with managing the effects of stress on the body. Even just five minutes of exercise can have a beneficial effect.
Whether you exercise in the morning, noon, or night, it’s incredibly helpful to incorporate more movement into your life.
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According to both the American Psychological Association and Harvard Health, exercise can help relieve stress, reduce depression, and improve cognitive function.
While the physical benefits of exercise have long been established, exercise is now also considered vital for maintaining mental health, including managing stress levels. Physical activity is very effective at reducing fatigue, improving alertness and concentration, and helping overall cognitive function.
These effects can be helpful when stress has drained your energy and decimated your ability to concentrate.
How Exercise Helps
Exercise and physical activity have really interesting impacts on the brain. For one, exercise releases endorphins–the brain’s DIY painkillers–and improves the amount of restful sleep you get. Scientists have found that regular participation in aerobic exercise has been shown to decrease overall levels of tension.
Research also shows that while exercise initially spikes the stress response in the body, people actually experience lower levels of stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine after they’re done with their workout.
Biologically, exercise gives the body a stress dress rehearsal. It forces the body's physiological systems to communicate more closely than usual. This flexing of the body’s communication systems may even be the greatest impact of exercise, because the more sedentary we get, the less efficient our bodies are in responding to stress and the more at-risk we are for the negative symptoms that it brings.
Manage some of the symptoms of stress at home
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