Let’s be honest. Not all stress is bad. Stress can be an enthusiastic motivator, like a hard-hitting coach pushing you to step up and challenge yourself. Stress can help you perform at your best and jump into action when a fight-or-flight situation arises. But when stress becomes severe or chronic and has you feeling exhausted, worn out, and just plain sick, it can become a real problem for your physical and emotional well-being. With that in mind, let’s dig deeper into how stress can harm your health.
Types of Stress
Stress refers to the strain caused by the demands placed on us in our daily lives. Stressful events can pop up at home or work, while running errands, or while stuck in traffic during your commute.
It’s not possible to avoid stress all the time, and in small doses, it’s not even all that bad. It may even be a good thing. But when it becomes a chronic presence in our lives, stress begins to mess with our physical and mental health.
Beyond stress as a broad concept, there are also several subtypes we may experience, and it’s helpful to familiarize ourselves with each.
This type of stress is short-lived and can be motivating or irritating. You may experience acute stress on a daily basis due to unfortunate conditions like being stuck in traffic or late for a meeting or making it home past curfew. Acute stress does not usually cause any long-term negative effects.
Episodic Acute Stress
When acute stress becomes more frequent—affecting more days in your week than not, for example—it becomes known as episodic acute stress. If you’re constantly running late or saying yes to too many obligations, stress becomes bothersome. Being under this kind of episodic stress can begin to affect how you interact with people at home or work.
When short-term stress becomes more or less constant and intense and sticks around for an extended period of time, it turns into chronic stress. When your body is constantly reacting to incoming stress—ready to fight or flee—it can begin to negatively affect your health and lead to other problems.
Eustress is positive, beneficial stress—the kind you feel before riding a roller coaster, going on a first date, or swimming in the ocean for the first time. Eustress makes you feel confident, capable, and ready for anything.
Symptoms of Stress
Like other animals, we humans have a built-in fight-or-flight response that helps us sense danger, determine if it’s a threat, and decide how to react. When we perceive something in our environment as stressful, our bodies release hormones like cortisol and adrenaline that cause respiratory and heart rates to increase, digestive function to slow, and muscles to tense. In other words, we become ready to fight or flee.
While the threats we face today are usually much different than those faced by our ancestors, our bodies still react the same way. These responses to stress are extremely helpful in certain situations, but when they never turn off and stress hormones are constantly surging, our bodies can wear down very quickly.
In fact, long-term stress takes a toll on nearly every organ system in the body and can lead to even more serious problems down the road. Thankfully, though, our bodies do let us know when they’re suffering, so we can take immediate action—if we’re paying attention. Some of these signals include:
- Rapid heartbeat
- Hair loss
- Racing thoughts
- Chest pain
- Trouble concentrating
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Changes in appetite
- Frequent infections
How Stress Can Harm Your Health
Stress begins to impact your health when it becomes a constant player in your day-to-day life. In fact, a 2015 study found that chronic stress can actually change pathways in your brain and throw your immune system so out of whack that it’s unable to function effectively.
Chronic stress can affect your body in the same manner as an infection, increasing inflammation within tissues, muscles, and organs. When this heightened stress and chronic inflammation go on for long enough, certain conditions can begin to develop. These include:
Plus, when we’re under constant stress, we tend not to follow the healthiest of lifestyles. For instance, we may begin to eat poorly, stop exercising, sleep less, smoke, and drink alcohol, all of which can actually exacerbate the stress we’re under and make its effects worse.
Respiratory and Cardiovascular Systems
When you’re under stress, you may have noticed that your heart begins to pound and you start to breathe quicker. This is because the fight-or-flight hormones released in your body during a stressful event cause your heart and respiratory rates to increase so that more blood and oxygen are available to your muscles.
Your blood pressure also goes up and your blood vessels constrict, both of which help provide your muscles the extra oxygen they need to fight or flee. When you’re under constant stress, the persistently elevated stress hormones put you at increased risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
Central Nervous and Endocrine Systems
Heading up your fight-or-flight response is your central nervous system (CNS), by which your brain, via the hypothalamus, tells your adrenal glands when to release cortisol and adrenaline. When the threat passes or stress subsides, the hypothalamus then gives the “all clear,” and your body returns to a normal state. When stress is constant, however, your CNS never turns off the flow of hormones, and your body can’t return to a relaxed state.
When you’re under severe stress or feeling extremely nervous, you may also experience stomach and digestive issues. This is because the surge of stress hormones, boost in heart rate, and increased breathing can cause issues with your digestive system.
While some sources say the stress response leads to an increase in stomach acid that in turn can lead to ulcers, acid reflux, and heartburn, others point to the fact that digestion slows down during an acute stress response, which means the production of stomach acid actually decreases.
Therefore, some scientists are now theorizing that instead of causing an increase in stomach acid production, stress actually causes your body to become more sensitive to smaller amounts of acid. Why would this be?
Researchers have hypothesized that stress may alter the way the brain communicates with pain receptors, making them more sensitive to acid levels. Stress can also cause levels of prostaglandins—which normally protect the stomach lining from the effects of acid—to drop.
Stress may also cause you to experience frequent stomachaches or bouts of constipation and diarrhea (irritable bowel syndrome). And high levels of stress may even lead to nausea and vomiting.
In addition, researchers have found a link between high stress levels in men and an increased chance of developing diabetes.
In the short-term, physiological stress, such as that due to an injury or illness, can cause your immune system to kick in and help your body recuperate. But if stress is constant, your immune system never has time to recover, and this can reduce its ability to fight off illness and infection.
Stress may even cause your immune system to start attacking healthy tissue, resulting in autoimmune disease. And if you do get sick or injured, stress may even prolong the time it takes for you to recover.
As mentioned earlier, when stress hormones are released, your body sends blood and oxygen to your muscles, preparing them to help you fight or run. Once the stressor is gone, your body then relaxes and your muscles soften. But if you’re under constant stress, your muscles are never allowed to relax, and this can lead to muscle aches and pains and tension headaches.
Reproductive System and Sexuality
High levels of stress can lead to changes in sex drive and the reproductive system in both men and women.
In men, prolonged stress can cause erectile dysfunction and result in a decrease in testosterone levels. Researchers have also discovered that stress can affect a man’s chance of developing prostate cancer. In addition, studies have shown that increased stress is associated with the occurrence of prostatitis.
Multiple studies have indicated a link between stress levels and infertility as well. For example, one study found that stress lowers both sperm counts and semen quality. Another study showed that women with elevated levels of an enzyme called alpha-amylase, which is associated with stress, were less likely to become pregnant than women with lower levels of the enzyme.
In women, chronic stress is also well known for its ability to alter the menstrual cycle, making periods heavier and more painful and irregular. Studies have also found a link between stress levels and the occurrence and severity of premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
Stress is noted to affect the transition through menopause as well, amplifying symptoms such as hot flashes and irritability. Several studies have also indicated a link between early menopause (occurring before the age of 40) and stress.
Mental and Emotional Health
Perhaps most alarming is the effect chronic stress can have on the brain. It’s widely known that traumatic events, such as exposure to war and childhood abuse, can trigger changes in brain structure.
In fact, research suggests that chronic stress can intensify anxiety and depression and increase the risk of developing mental health issues, including personality disorders, anger problems, bipolar disorder, and other cognitive and personality conditions.
A study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, also demonstrated that chronic stress can actually result in fewer neurons (nerve cells) in the brain, which may explain why stress affects learning and memory.
Healthy Stress Management
While avoiding stress completely is certainly not realistic, lowering your stress levels and managing them effectively can not only improve your current quality of life but can also enhance your long-term physical and mental health.
Here are several strategies for managing your stress and reducing your risk of health problems.
Recognize the Signs
The sooner you identify your stress triggers and your body’s red flags, the sooner you can decrease the chance stress will stick around and lead to health-related issues. Look out for these potential warning signs:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Increased alcohol use
- Low energy
Try a Relaxing Activity
Finding methods to lower your stress can help you combat long-term health issues. Stress management techniques such as yoga, meditation, tai chi, and deep breathing and visualization exercises have been proven to help decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Going for a walk, writing in a journal, doing a puzzle, or reading an uplifting book can also take your mind off stressful situations and help you get back to a calmer, more balanced state.
Get Regular Exercise
Exercising just 30 minutes a day can help boost endorphin levels and reduce stress. So whatever physical activity you enjoy, get your heart pumping and let your worries and frustrations melt away.
Healthy, supportive relationships are essential to keeping stress in check. Friends and family can provide reassurance when you’re weighed down with worries or offer a good distraction when you need to escape your problems and put things in perspective.
Procrastination and rushing around can amplify stress levels. Instead, decide what must be done and what can wait and learn to say no to new obligations that only lead to feelings of overwhelm and heightened stress.
Also try mapping out the week or month in advance to identify key projects that need to get done and break larger projects down into smaller, more manageable tasks when possible.
Eat a Healthy Diet
What you put in your body directly affects how you feel physically and emotionally, and a healthy diet can help you be more resilient to the effects of stress. So when stress starts to rear its ugly head, skip the chips and go for stress-busting foods instead.
Green leafy vegetables, salmon, blueberries, pistachios, and avocados are among some of the best choices to aid in combating stress. Certain supplements can also help temper your body’s response to stress.
Vitamins B6, B12, and folic acid, combined with amino acids, can improve brain function and help you deal with stress more effectively. Amino acid supplements can also help balance the neurotransmitters in your brain so feelings of worry, anxiety, and tension are kept in check.
Talk to Your Health Care Provider
If you find yourself experiencing levels of stress beyond your ability to manage, or your personal or professional life begins to suffer, don’t hesitate to ask for help. Mental health professionals are trained to deal with crisis situations and can help you find the method of stress management that works best for you.
Once you begin to pinpoint how you personally experience stress and what triggers it—whether it’s your loved ones, finances, job, a past traumatic event, or a combination of these—you’ll be able to find the tools you need to cope with what’s stressing you out and get back to enjoying life again.