What Happens to Your Body When You're Stressed

Posted on October 4, 2017

It is very natural to feel stressed in certain moments, such as before an important interview or during an exam – however, we are physiologically equipped to deal with stress.

The “stress response” is what happens in our bodies when we feel under pressure: the nervous system releases stress hormones such as adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. It is also called the “fight-or-flight” response, because these stress hormones help us cope with a threat by either attacking or fleeing. From an evolutionary perspective the stress response is highly adaptive, because it helps us to stay alert, motivated, and focused on the task at hand, for example either running from or fighting a predator. Even today, feeling stressed can be positive, because it enables us to overcome obstacles in life, and when the pressure subsides, the body can rebalance and we feel calm again.

However, the ‘stress response” can become problematic when we experience stress too often or for too long: Continuous activation of the nervous system will cause wear and tear on our body.

Here are 10 different ways in which feelings of stress influence our bodies, which are adaptive initially, but can lead to further issues if chronically activated:

1. Stress affects our musculoskeletal system, because our muscles tense up in order to protect ourselves from injury and pain. However, repeated or prolonged muscles tension can cause pain and aches, as well as headaches and migraines if it occurs in the shoulders and neck.

2. Cardiovascular effects include increased heart rate and blood pressure, which subside once the acute stressor has passed. If stress becomes chronic however, it can damage the blood vessels and arteries, which increases the risk for hypertension, heart attack, and stroke.

3. Stress weakens our immune system: cortisol is released in our bodies which suppresses the immune system and inflammatory pathways, and thereby makes us more susceptible to infections and chronic inflammatory conditions, because our ability to fight off illnesses is reduced.

4. Our respiratory system is immediately affected by stress, because we tend to breathe harder and faster, in order to quickly distribute oxygen-rich blood around our body.

5. Our nervous system is connected to the endocrine system – which regulates our mood, growth and development, tissue function and metabolism - through the hypothalamus, which is located in the brain. A stress signal coming from the hypothalamus will trigger the release of stress hormones, as well as the production of blood sugar (glucose) by the liver, in order to provide you with energy needed to deal with the stressful situation at hand. The extra glucose is generally reabsorbed once we feel calm again, however for some people there is an increased risk of diabetes when they feel chronically stressed.

6. Stress can even have gastrointestinal effects: especially if we have changed our eating habits or increased our consumption of fatty and/or sugary food, we can experience heartburn and acid reflux. Our intestines’ ability to absorb nutrients is reduced and we may experience stomach pains, bloating, nausea, diarrhea or constipation.

7. During chronic feelings of stress our reproductive system can be influenced, which shows in changes to their menstrual cycles and increased premenstrual symptoms in women, and lowered production of testosterone and sperm, as well as erectile dysfunction or impotence in men.

8. Stress does not just affect our physical well-being, but also our emotional well-being: experiencing high and low moods throughout our day-to-day life is normal, however when we are stressed, we tend to feel more tired, have mood swings, and feel more irritable.

9. Sleep can be interrupted or compromised by experiencing stress, because it causes hyperarousal which can make it difficult to fall asleep or to stay asleep. These restless nights impair our concentration, attention, learning and memory, and chronic poor sleep has even been linked to depression and obesity.

10. Lastly, the way that we cope with the stressors in our life has an indirect effect on our health: Under pressure, we sometimes adopt harmful habits, such as smoking, drinking too much alcohol, or taking drugs, in order to relieve the stress. These behaviors are unhelpful ways to adapt and will lead to additional health problems and risks to our safety and well-being.

The bottom line is, short feelings of stress - for example immediately before an interview - are helpful adaptions that make us feel alert, motivated, and focused. However, this “stress response” is only advantageous as long as it is temporary and our body re-balances once the pressure subsides. So learn to manage your stress, before it manages you. Take positive actions to channel your energy effectively, and you will find yourself performing better, achieving more, and feeling great.

Category(s):Health / Illness / Medical Issues, Health Psychology, Stress Management

Source material from The Conversation

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