Understanding how stress impacts your body can help you understand how important it is to manage stress and the long-term damage that stress can cause. It can also help you understand how to reduce stress.
While stress can be helpful, for example, to keeping you alert and motivated when you have work deadline, it can be detrimental to your health in the long term if your body and mind is exposed to repeated stress without rest.
According to Headspace, the brain contains two almond-sized processing chips, called the amygdala, that govern our senses, decisions, and moods. It works like our emotional thermostat, regulating our reaction to certain forces like stress and fear. For example, if there is no stress present, it will remain on a calm setting. However, if faced with a life-threatening situation, the dial will turn up, activating the flight or fight response to aid us in reacting to such a situation to protect us. If we have a deadline coming up, the dial may also turn up to prompt us to get moving and working on the project.
Unfortunately, when stress becomes continuous, the brain can become conditioned to respond in a reactive way. The stress actually reshapes the structure and neural pathways of our brain — a process called neuroplasticity.
The good news is that the mind can be trained to manage stress better. Headspace reports that studies using MRI scans have shown a regular meditation practice can shrink the amygdala, which helps us respond rather than react to stressful situations. A regular practice of meditation can help us build the capacity and mental resilience to be more aware of stress and manage it better.
Headspace describes how the brain activates the fight or flight response. When the amygdala detects danger, it sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus, which then signals to your nervous system to trigger the fight-or-flight response. When this fight-or-flight response is repeatedly activated, it can cause wear and tear on the body, and health problems over time.
Muscles tense up as a natural reaction to stress, to guard against injury and pain. When the stress passes, the muscles relax again. It is when the stress is consistent, with muscles tense for extended periods, that this can cause other problems in the body.
For example, the American Psychological Association (APA) reports that both tension-type headache and migraine headache are associated with chronic muscle tension in the shoulders, neck and head. This is where stretching can help by relieving the muscle tension created by carrying stress in our body.
When the flight or fight response is initiated, a few process are activated to protect the body stress hormones, including adrenaline, send messages to increase the heart rate. The blood vessels dilate, increasing the amount of blood pumped to the heart and large muscles, raising blood pressure. Simultaneously, you start to breathe more rapidly and your body sends extra oxygen to your brain, increasing alertness. Breathing exercises such as those on apps or with a health professional may help.
The APA reports that chronic stress, with the ongoing increase in heart rate, the elevated levels of stress hormones and of blood pressure, can take a toll on the body. This long-term ongoing stress can increase the risk for serious health conditions including those to do with the heart. According to the APA, persistent chronic stress may also contribute to inflammation in the circulatory system, particularly in the coronary arteries, and this is one pathway that is thought to tie stress to heart attack.
The gut has hundreds of millions of neurons which are in constant communication with the brain—explaining the ability to feel “butterflies” in the stomach. Stress can affect this brain-gut communication, and may trigger pain, bloating, and other gut discomfort to be felt more easily. Even vomiting may occur if the stress is severe enough.
Stress can affect how quickly food moves through the body, which can cause either diarrhoea or constipation. Stress can induce muscle spasms in the bowel, which can be painful, and can affect digestion and what nutrients the intestines absorb. Gas production related to nutrient absorption may increase.
Stress can also increase the severity of heartburn pain. Stress may make swallowing foods difficult or increase the amount of air that is swallowed, which increases burping, gassiness, and bloating.
For males, chronic stress, can affect testosterone production resulting in a decline in sex drive or libido, and can even cause erectile dysfunction or impotence. For women, chronic stress can also lead to low sex drive due to the multiple competing roles they play as working mothers.
Continuous stress produces stress hormones which can impair the ability for you to fall asleep as well as the deepest stages of sleep. According to Sutter Health, your mind and body are more easily woken by sounds or by your own stressful thoughts during these times.
Adrenal glands act like batteries. When the fight or flight response is activated, adrenaline is released to provide energy to deal with the stress. When these limited battery reserves are overused, fatigue can result.