The Effects of Stress on the Body
Everyone's got stress. It is a natural physical and mental reaction to both good and bad experiences that can be beneficial to your health and safety. In the short term, stress helps you cope with tough situations. This kind of stress is called acute stress and can be helpful if you're trying to achieve a goal, or run away from a bear. But, stress can be triggered by the pressures of everyday responsibilities at work and home as well. As you might expect, negative life events such as the death of a loved one, or getting fired cause a lot of stress. When this stress lasts for long enough to cause problems with your overall health and well being, it's called chronic stress and this kind of stress is not helpful in the least. Chronic stress can cause a variety of health and mental issues. If it gets bad enough, it can disable a person with mental health issues such as acute anxiety and PTSD as well as creating serious physical health issues.
Central Nervous and Endocrine Systems
Your central nervous system is in charge of your “fight or flight” response. It tells the rest of your body what to do, calling in all of the body's resources to the cause. When the perceived fear is gone, your brain should tell all systems to go back to normal. It has done its job. But, if it fails to return to normal for some reason, or if the thing that's stressing you doesn’t go away, it can take a big toll on your body. Some symptoms of chronic stress include irritability, anxiety, and depression. You may suffer from headaches or insomnia. Chronic stress can be a factor in behaviors such as overeating or a loss of appetite, alcohol or drug abuse, or social withdrawal.
Cardiovascular and Respiratory Systems
During a stress response, you breathe faster in an effort to distribute oxygen and blood quickly to your body core. If you have preexisting respiratory problems like asthma or emphysema, stress can make it harder to breathe. Your heart also pumps faster. Stress causes your blood vessels to constrict and raise your blood pressure. All that helps get oxygen to your body core so you’ll have more strength and energy to take action. Frequent or chronic stress makes your heart work too hard for too long, raising your risk of hypertension and problems with your blood vessels and heart. You’re at higher risk of having a stroke or heart attack.
Under stress, your liver produces extra blood sugar to give you a boost of energy. Unused blood sugar is then reabsorbed by the body. If you’re under chronic stress, your body may not be able to keep up with this extra surge, and you may be at an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes. The rush of hormones, rapid breathing, and increased heart rate can upset your digestive system. You’re more likely to have heartburn or acid reflux. Stress doesn’t cause ulcers — a bacterium called H. pylori does — but stress may cause existing ulcers to act up. You might experience nausea, vomiting, or a stomachache. Stress can affect the way food moves through your body, leading to diarrhea or constipation.
Under stress, your muscles tense up to protect themselves from injury. If you’re constantly under stress, your muscles don’t get the chance to relax. Tight muscles cause headaches, back and shoulder pain, and body aches. Over time, you may stop exercising and turn to pain medication, setting off an unhealthy cycle.
Sexuality and Reproductive System
Stress is exhausting for the body and for the mind. It’s not unusual to lose your desire for sex when you’re under chronic stress. However, men may produce more of the male hormone testosterone during stress, which may increase sexual arousal in the short term. For women, stress can affect the menstrual cycle. You might have irregular or no menstruation, or heavier and more painful periods. The physical symptoms of menopause may be magnified under chronic stress. If stress continues for a long time, a man’s testosterone levels begin to drop. That can interfere with sperm production and cause erectile dysfunction or impotence. Chronic stress may make the urethra, prostate, and testes more prone to infection.
Stress stimulates the immune system. In the short term, that’s a bonus. It helps you stave off infection and heal wounds. Over time, however, chronic stress compromises your immune system, inhibiting your body's inflammatory response to foreign invaders. People under chronic stress are more susceptible to viral illnesses like influenza and the common cold. It increases risk of other opportunistic diseases and infections. It can also increase the time it takes to recover from illness or injury.
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