Physical Effects of Stress

Stress is a natural response that your body has to any kind of demand or threat. When you sense danger, you would hope that your body reacts appropriately and kicks it into high gear. This automatic process is known as ‘fight or flight’, aka the ‘stress response’. This is meant to protect you, but when this response keeps firing daily, your health could be at serious risk. There are many symptoms of chronic stress, including: irritability, anxiety, depression, insomnia, and even intense migraines (click here to read more about stress migraines). When you experience chronic stress, it takes a toll on your physical health. Below are the physical effects that stress has on your body.


Central Nervous & Endocrine Systems

Your central nervous system is in charge of the ‘fight or flight’ response. When you sense danger, your brain automatically alerts your hypothalamus, which tells your adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol (stress hormones). When this happens, the hormones make your heartbeat increase, which sends blood rushing to the areas that need it in an emergency, such as your muscles. When the perceived fear is gone, the hypothalamus should alert the systems to return to normal. If you are continually stressed and your body does not get the alert to return to normal, this response will continue. This tends to lead to behaviors such as overeating, not eating enough, alcohol/drug use and social withdrawal.

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Respiratory & Cardiovascular Systems

During the stress response, you breathe faster to distribute oxygen-rich blood to your body. If you suffer from asthma or emphysema, stress can make it even harder to breathe. Stress hormones also cause your blood vessels to constrict and divert more oxygen to your muscles so that you will have more strength to take action against the perceived threat. This means that when you are under stress, your heart pumps faster and your blood pressure is raised. Frequent stress makes your heart work harder for an extended period of time. This combined with high blood pressure leaves you at a higher risk for having a stroke or heart attack.

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Digestive System

When you are stressed, your liver produces extra blood sugar (glucose) for a boost of energy. Your body may have a hard time keeping up with this extra glucose surge when frequently stressed. This could ultimately mean that chronic stress may increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. The rush of hormones, increased breathing, and quicker heart rate can also upset your digestive system. Chronic stress means that you are more likely to have heartburn or acid reflux due to an increase in stomach acid. Stress also effects the way that food moves through your body, which can lead to diarrhea, constipation, nausea, vomiting or stomachaches.

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Muscular System

Your muscles tense up to protect themselves from injury when you’re stressed. They tend to release again once you relax, but if you’re constantly under stress, your muscles may not get the chance to relax. Tight muscles cause headaches, back/shoulder pain, and body aches. Over time, this can set off an unhealthy cycle as you stop exercising and turn to pain medication for relief.

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Sexuality & Reproductive System

Stress can feel exhausting for both your body and mind. It is common to lose sexual desire when under constant stress. When males experience chronic stress, their testosterone levels begin to drop, which interferes with sperm production and can cause erectile dysfunction. Chronic stress may also increase risk of infection for the prostate and testes. For women, stress can affect the menstrual cycle by leading to irregular, heavier, or more painful periods. Chronic stress can also magnify the physical symptoms of menopause.

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Immune System

Stress stimulates the immune system, which comes in handy for immediate situations. This stimulation is a natural response that helps you avoid infections and heal wounds. Chronic stress will continue to initiate this response and the stress hormones will weaken your immune system. People under frequent stress are more susceptible to viral illnesses, such as the flu and common cold. It can also increase the time it takes you to recover from an injury or illness.

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If you need guidance with managing your stress, click here to be paired with a talk therapist who specializes in stress management.