Stress is a natural physical and mental reaction to both good and bad experiences that can be beneficial to your health and safety. Your body responds to stress by releasing hormones and increasing your heart and breathing rates. Your brain gets more oxygen, giving you an edge in responding to a problem. In the short term, stress helps you cope with tough situations.
Stress can be triggered by the pressures of everyday responsibilities at work and at home. As you might expect, negative life events like divorce or the death of a loved one cause stress. So can physical illness. Traumatic stress, brought on by war, disaster, or a violent attack, can keep your body’s stress levels elevated far longer than is necessary for survival.
Chronic stress can cause a variety of symptoms and can affect your overall health and well-being.
Central Nervous and Endocrine Systems
Your central nervous system (CNS) is in charge of your “fight or flight” response. The CNS instantly tells the rest of your body what to do, marshaling all resources to the cause. In the brain, the hypothalamus gets the ball rolling, telling your adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol.
When the perceived fear is gone, the CNS should tell all systems to go back to normal. It has done its job. If the CNS fails to return to normal, or if the stressor doesn’t go away, it takes a toll on your body.
Symptoms of chronic stress include irritability, anxiety, and depression. You may suffer from headaches or insomnia. Chronic stress is a factor in some behaviors like overeating or not eating enough, alcohol or drug abuse, or social withdrawal.
Respiratory and Cardiovascular Systems
Stress hormones affect your respiratory and cardiovascular systems. During the 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 hormones cause your blood vessels to constrict and raise your blood pressure. All that helps get oxygen to your brain and heart 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.
The female hormone estrogen offers pre-menopausal women some protection from stress-related heart disease.
Under stress, your liver produces extra blood sugar (glucose) to give you a boost of energy. Unused blood sugar is reabsorbed by the body. If you’re under chronic stress, your body may not be able to keep up with this extra glucose 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. You’ve probably felt your muscles tighten up and release again once you relax. 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, cortisol compromises your immune system, inhibiting histamine secretion and 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.