How does stress affect your body?
Stress is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as a “state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.” Everyone experiences stress in their lives, whether it is caused by work, relationships or any number of circumstances that put pressure on us.
It’s safe to say that most everyone is familiar with the mental and emotional effects of stress, as those are what we notice most prominently. Emotionally, one may feel overwhelmed, irritable or ‘wound up’, anxious, fearful, lacking in self-esteem. One may experience racing thoughts, constant worrying, difficulty concentrating or making decisions. But whilst people are familiar with these aspects of being stressed, their preoccupation with these symptoms and the events that are making them feel stressed often means that they are not as aware of the effect that it has on them physically.
When one gets stressed their body tenses up. Muscle tension is a reflex reaction to stress; it is the body’s way of guarding against injury and pain. The sudden onset of stress often makes all of your muscles tense up at once, and chronic stress can cause these muscles to be more or less constantly tensed. When your muscles are taut for too long a period of time this can provoke reactions in the body such as tension headaches or migraines. Relaxation techniques have been shown to effectively reduce muscle tension and decrease the incidence of certain stress related disorders such as chronic headaches.
Stress can often make breathing more difficult. Although this doesn’t affect most people for those with a chronic lung condition such as asthma, getting enough oxygen into your lungs is already difficult, so they are more susceptible. Studies have shown that in the cases of those with lung diseases acute stress can trigger asthma attacks, causing the airways between the nose and mouth to constrict. It can also affect people with panic disorders, as it can trigger the hyperventilating (rapid shallow breathing) that can accompany a panic attack.
The cardiovascular system is made up of the heart and blood vessels that supply oxygen and other nourishment around the body. It is also coordinated into the body’s stress response. Acute stress, ie. momentary stress with a short term cause, can cause an increase in the person’s heart rate. It also causes the contractions of the heart muscles to become stronger, meaning that one’s blood pressure increases. Stress hormones such as adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol act as messengers for these responses. Blood vessels that direct blood to large muscles at the heart dilate, increasing the amount of blood being pumped to these areas. This is all part of our fight or flight response. The body is prepping itself to either run, or fight to defend itself. Chronic stress however, and the consistent elevation of blood pressure, can take a toll on the body, even increasing one’s risk of having a stroke or a heart attack.
These are not the only affects that stress can have on the body. In fact, the most visible way that stress manifests is in the increase of acne. When people are stressed they often touch their faces more, which in tern spreads bacteria. This can contribute to an acne flare up. Stress can also affect your gastrointestinal system, as your brain becomes more aware of the sensations in your stomach. This can make you feel like you have butterflies in your stomach, feel nauseous, or have cramps. If the stress is severe enough then some may even find them selves physically sick. Chronic stress can lead to the development of stomach ulcers.
In most cases the physical results of stress fade as the cause of the stress does. Very seldom does stress leave you with irreparable damage to your body. Being aware of the damage stress can do to your body helps you monitor your reaction to it, and can help mitigate the effects it has on you and your life.