June 8, 2020
Physical Effects of Stress: 7 Ways Stress Can Impact Your Body
Written by Rachel Eddins
Effects of Stress on the Body
Stress exists in many forms. Any situation you are not in control of is stressful. The effects of stress are commonly known. Yet you may not be aware of the way it impacts you physically.
Stress takes its toll in countless ways. It is commonly found to be at the root of many emotional, cognitive, and behavioral problems. And can cause you to fall into depression, experience anxiety, and simply feel overwhelmed with everyday things.
While stress is unavoidable, too much of it can actually have an impact on your physical health as well. The physical effects of stress on your body can cause you to feel even worse and perpetuate the cycle of emotional stress. The physical consequences of stress are one of the more serious effects of stress.
The Adrenaline Hormone and Stress
When you are startled, frightened, or angry, your body produces the hormone adrenaline. Your body secretes adrenaline to give you strength and alertness to fight off or escape danger. This is your “fight or flight” response.
It worked great when most of the dangers humans faced were physical. By fighting or running away, people resolved the problem and worked off the tension that adrenaline produces.
The adrenaline hormone is responsible for the following physical symptoms under stress:
- Shallow breathing
- Heart pounding
- Profuse sweating
- Intestines shut down
- Tense, apprehensiveness, jitters
Without the option of running away and working off the energy adrenaline produces, it stagnates in your body. Further, a chronic adrenaline response to stress can have a significant impact on your physical health.
Physical Effects of Stress
When a person is stressed, a physical reaction is triggered. The body’s natural response to stress is a release of chemicals designed to protect. This infusion of stress hormones (adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol) prepares a person to fight or flee the stressful circumstance. Stress responses are natural and help a person rise to a challenge by enhancing focus, alertness, and energy level.
When you aren’t able to let go, relax and unwind, the effects of stress can be harmful. Chronic exposure to stress can lead to a variety of physical stress-related symptoms and illnesses.
When a child’s brain is exposed to heightened levels of stress, the developing brain itself can be altered and damaged by the stress hormones. This natural reaction of the body can result in a lifetime of emotional and behavioral problems. These are often associated with improper development of brain structures like the hippocampus, thalamus, and amygdala.
Here, we explore the physical effects of stress in adults:
1. Physical Aches & Pains
Stress causes tension throughout your body. It puts your body in a state of constant work, which is why it causes fatigue. And what happens if your muscles are overworked? They start to ache.
Not surprisingly, migraine sufferers commonly associate stress with their migraines. The pain doesn’t always stop at the head, either. Some people “carry stress” on their shoulders, causing prolonged tension in their neck, shoulder, and back muscles. This causes a variety of aches and pains that are common to those responding to long-term stressful circumstances.
Muscle spasms can be another symptom of stress.
Think about how your body feels the next day after you’ve had a long, intense workout—especially if you haven’t exercised in a while. You’ll typically find that your muscles are in pain and aching. And it might be hard to do everyday tasks, including walking down the stairs!
While stress isn’t necessarily a workout, it can sure make your body feel just as exhausted and sore. Muscle aches and chronic pain are very common consequences of stress. That’s one reason why people who are overly stressed often get massages to ease the tension in their muscles.
2. Rising Blood Pressure & Blood Sugar
Your heartbeat and blood pressure increase in response to stress. This change helped prehistoric humans survive by helping them run away faster or fight harder.
Short-term increases in blood pressure are expected in response to stress. Chronic responses to stress are thought to contribute to hypertension. This increases the chances of kidney failure, stroke, heart attack, or even heart failure.
Constant stress produces high levels of adrenaline, which can raise your blood pressure and your blood sugar. High blood pressure and blood sugar can weaken the heart and many other organs. This can also explain why you might have sugar cravings.
Excessive caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco can increase your adrenaline.
Stress is a double-whammy to the heart. First, a stress response resulting in overly competitive, impatient, or hostile behaviors increases the likelihood of developing cardiovascular or heart disease. Second, while comfort foods high in fat and salt are often craved to soothe the soul, these foods aren’t good for heart health.
3. Stress & Your Gastrointestinal Tract
Your stomach is directly connected to your brain through nerves. When you’re stressed, your brain sends signals to flood the intestinal area with hormones and neurotransmitters. This can result in the common feelings of “knot in your stomach”, slowing down or speeding up of your gastrointestinal tract, spasms, increased acid secretion, heartburn, and bloating caused by air swallowing, a common response to stress.
The physical effects of stress in your stomach and gastrointestinal tract then register in your brain as more stress. The more stress the brain feels, the more hormones and chemicals it releases. It’s a vicious cycle of stress and discomfort.
Bowel Movement Troubles
While certain foods, medications, bacteria, and viruses are known to cause diarrhea, stress responses are thought to create, if not exacerbate, conditions leading to diarrhea. Because stress impedes relaxation, extending to the bowels, constipation can also result from stress responses.
While more research is needed to establish the connection between the brain, stress hormones, and the gut, stress is often thought to be a contributing factor when it comes to diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and constipation.
An Upset Stomach
Stress and nervousness often go hand-in-hand. Stress can cause you to feel nauseous or have diarrhea. It can also lead to shaking, cold hands, sweaty feet, and constipation.
You might even mistake some of these symptoms for anxiety, and stress can certainly lead to that if it isn’t managed or treated.
Ulcers are caused by bacteria, not stress. However, stress may make the body more resistant to ulcer-causing germs.
4. Skin Ailments
While the cause of some skin problems is not always known, the effects of stress is thought to aggravate, if not cause, some cases of acne, eczema, and psoriasis.
Unexplained, uncomfortable skin rashes commonly seem to be associated with stressful circumstances.
Stress hormones upset the hormone balance in the body, affecting many organs, including the skin. Itching is the primary symptom. Scratching can cause mild skin issues to persist and get worse.
Avoid scratching or touching as much as you can. Relax in a warm bath with baking soda or oatmeal to soothe the skin. Talk to your doctor if it gets worse. Your doctor can help you rule out a skin condition caused by. an allergy as well.
5. Stress and Your Immune System
The hormones cortisone and adrenaline released in response to stress are such potent suppressors of the immune system that they are sometimes prescribed for disorders in which the immune system is overactive, such as allergies and autoimmune diseases.
Stress increases your chance of illness. In fact, the greater the stress, the greater the likelihood of illness.
Colds and Infections
Think about the way stress taxes your body. It’s putting your body under constant pressure and work. So, it makes sense that it also weakens your immune system.
That makes it much easier to be susceptible to colds and viral infections like the flu, respiratory illnesses, etc. When your immune system is weaker and you’re already fatigued, you’ll find that you get sick more often.
When the body’s natural stress response suppresses a person’s immune system, the person is left with a higher susceptibility to a variety of ailments and illnesses. Allergy attacks are more common or more severe, catching a common cold is easier, and arthritis may flare up. A person whose immune system is challenged is also obviously more susceptible to infections.
Unfortunately, it’s another thing that perpetuates the cycle, as being sick can make you feel even more stressed.
Ironically enough, one of the consequences of stress is the persistent loss of a good night’s sleep. In turn, insomnia can cause even more harm to your body and mind.
This may include:
- Difficulty concentrating
If your stressful thoughts are keeping you awake at night, or your body is too tense to relax, not getting enough sleep is common. But that’s a big problem! Try these strategies to cope with insomnia and get some rest.
Low energy and feeling tired all the time are one of the most common physical side effects of stress. Think about how it typically affects your mind. It can completely take over your thoughts and lead to excessive worry.
When your mind is working overtime, your body often does the same thing. That can bring your energy levels down and leave you feeling tired even if you haven’t done anything to physically exert yourself.
Stress is a Part of Life
Life is stressful. Each of us will encounter stress as part of living. We are designed to deal with stress, even occasional extreme stress. However, repeated or chronic exposure to circumstances eliciting the body’s natural stress response can have long-term, negative physical consequences.
Most of these effects of stress and physical problems can be alleviated by taking action to change the circumstances, or to change the response to those circumstances.
If these problems suggest stress is a factor in your life, take a look at the circumstances causing the stress and make an effort to reduce the pressure surrounding the situation however possible. These problems will not go away on their own. If you find yourself unable to control the stress in your life, contacting a therapist can be a great first step.
Sometimes, chronic stress can be a side-effect of a traumatic incident or long-term exposure to something traumatic, whether abuse or more subtle, chronic neglect or lack of safety. Without safety in the environment or in our relationships, our bodies stay on high alert, which can be another cause of long-term stress.
Strategies for Coping with the Physical Effects of Stress
The key to coping with stress is making sure there are enough periods of relaxation to balance the effects of stress. When we’re faced with one stress period after another, with no time to relax in between, it can affect our physical and emotional well-being.
Try some of these stress reduction techniques:
- Begin deep breathing, meditation, or progressive muscle relaxation. Deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation counter the production of adrenaline.
- Practice grounding and self-soothing skills for overwhelming emotions.
- Develop an action plan for coping with the effects of stress. What are stresses you can do something about? Set a specific goal to address this source of stress.
- Exercise gives you a mild jolt of adrenaline but then allows you to work off the extra energy it produces. Your body becomes more adept at processing the adrenaline that’s in your bloodstream during times of stress.
- Talk things out with a friend or therapist.
How Therapy Can Help
As you can see, emotional strain affects more than just your mental state. The physical consequences of stress are just as severe and can greatly impact your quality of life or even lead to other health-related issues.
A therapist can help you cope with the effects of stress in your life and identify ways to reduce the sources of stress of stress where possible. Sometimes this involves finding new solutions to old problems, looking at situations differently, or processing your emotions. In other cases, this might involve healing deeper anxieties and fears stemming from past trauma. Find out more about our stress management counseling services.
If you’re overwhelmed with stress and it’s starting to affect your physical health, feel free to contact us. Together, we can talk more about the underlying cause of that stress and work on ways to safely and effectively manage it.
If you or someone you know is struggling with stress, help is available. Contact one of our Counselors. Our therapists can help you or your loved one cope and minimize the physical effects of stress.
To get started now give us a call to schedule an appointment at 832-559-2622 or schedule an appointment online. We offer therapy in Houston, TX or online counseling in Texas, Indiana and Alabama. We look forward to help you!
The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook (A New Harbinger Self-Help Workbook)
Each chapter features a different method for relaxation and stress reduction, explains why the method works, and provides on-the-spot exercises you can do to apply that method when you feel stressed.
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