Stress is a term we use to describe anything in our lives that causes strain on our mind, body, and emotions. This happens to all of us so why are we worried about stress effects on the body? This article gives you answers to that question and also reviews ways to combat chronic stress effects on the body.
Table of Contents
What is stress?
Stress is a normal part of life, and so is the way our body responds to it. We use the term “stress” to describe something that is a state of mental, emotional, or physical strain on our body that comes from very demanding circumstances. This can be anything from a fight with your significant other to a night without sleep.
And although we may experience different types of stress, the stress effects on the body remain the same no matter what the stressor is. Experiencing stress on the body shows up in ways like increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and even hormone changes. Even though we can tell the difference between being chased by a tiger and losing a job, our bodies cannot. The stress response is still the same and just varies in intensity.
Stress effects on body, stress effects on the body
So what does stress actually do to our body? Well, the stress response was designed to be a short-term reaction. Think “being chased by a tiger” type of response; you need these changes for survival and they are designed to be very helpful!
Here is the overview of stress effects on the body:
- You experience a trigger
- A bunch of hormones are released to combat that stressor by getting the body ready to RUN AWAY!
- The body is flooded with sugar for immediate energy
- Hormones are released that cause the arteries to become smaller and the heart to beat faster. This helps to deliver more oxygen throughout the body for energy.
- Certain things that the body usually does are suppressed: digestion, fertility, immune system because the body is trying to conserve extra energy to focus all efforts on “survival”
- The threat is neutralized and the stress is resolved.
- Hormone levels return to normal and the body goes back to functioning as it usually does.
This is very helpful in a short-term stress reaction. But the problems occur when we have chronic stress effects on the body. The body doesn’t have a chance to return back to normal function and it puts us at risk for:
- Chronic fatigue
- Increased belly fat
- Digestive issues
- Fertility issues
- Heart disease
- Blood pressure problems
- Weakened immune system
- Sleep problems
- Memory issues
- Thyroid disorders
YIKES. So what are some of the chronic stress physical symptoms that you may experience?
Stress Physical Symptoms
#1 Vision problems:
Vision can be damaged by chronic stress from blood pressure being elevated. And since this can happen gradually, you might not notice, especially when you are under chronically stressful situations.
#2 Heightened Senses:
Some of the hormones that are released with the stress cascade can increase our sense of taste, smell, and sight for a short time during the immediate response. But over time, constant stimulation of senses can actually cause them to lose sensitivity. Therefore chronic stress can cause a loss of taste, smell, or even appetite.
#3 Poor Memory:
During an acute stress response, extra oxygen is sent to the brain. However over time, the hormones that are released during a stress response have actually been shown to cause decreased memory and even shrink the size of the brain.
#4 Muscle aches, back pain, headaches:
When you experience chronic stress effects on the body, you may tense up. Over time, this can cause headaches from clenched jaw, shoulder and neck pain from muscle tension, and even set you up for chronic back pain and injury.
#5 Mental Health Problems:
Chronic stress can cause anxiety, depression, and overall poor mental health. You may feel like you are constantly on edge, irritable, or anxious. It can also cause disruption in your daily activities and relationships, which can lead to depression.
#6 Weight Gain:
Chronic stress causes weight to be stored around the abdomen because this is easier to break down into energy during an acute stress situation. So you may experience increased abdominal fat, slowed metabolism, and difficulty losing weight. Other ways that chronic stress affects weight could be by triggering emotional eating, in which you eat to soothe stress.
#7 Skin problems:
Chronic stress can cause inflammation in the body, which shows up in the form of skin issues. You may experience flares of acne, psoriasis, eczema, and even premature aging and wrinkles! Not to mention that if you are constantly under stress, you may do things like picking your skin or biting your nails.
#8 Increased Illness:
When you are experiencing an acute stress response, one of the things that your body suppresses is the immune system. Why is this? Well, it’s because it is trying to conserve energy….and protecting you from viruses isn’t a priority when you are running from a tiger! So with chronic stress, your body doesn’t protect and fight against infection like it should. Therefore you may experience increased illness or take longer to get over a cold than you normally should.
#9 Sleep Problems:
Chronic stress can cause tremendous sleep issues. You may experience difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or suffer from nighttime waking that keeps you up for hours.
#10 Gut Issues:
Digesting food is NOT a priority when you are running from a tiger! So one of the chronic stress effects on the body is digestive issues. You may experience constipation, nausea, diarrhea, or maybe all of these symptoms.
How can I measure stress?
#1 Measure Stress with a Questionairre
Stress can be difficult to measure since we all respond to situations differently. One of the most widely used tools is the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS), which is a questionnaire that you can access here. It is one way that is used to measure how stressful situations are affecting you personally.
#2 Measure Stress with a Home test from Everlywell
Stress itself can’t be measured with a blood draw, however when your body is under stress, the main hormone that is produced is something that can be measured. This hormone is cortisol.
Cortisol fluctuates during the day and should have a nice, steady rise and fall. However, under times of chronic stress, those cortisol levels can go to extreme highs and lows throughout the day. The best way to measure cortisol is through the saliva levels taken 4 times in a 24 hour period (5 times if there is night time waking).
The test that I recommend that does not need a medical order is through Everlywell. Everlywell products are shipped directly to your home and provide everything that you need to gather the samples then return them to the lab (shipping is included). I have used Everlywell (Metabolism test) myself and have even tested the results against traditional outpatient lab results and have found them to be very accurate!
#3 Measure Stress with a Home test from Health Confirm
An alternative test to try is found on Amazon. I have not personally used this brand, however it has a good reputation and the science seems solid so I feel comfortable recommending this test as well. It is the Health Confirm Stress hormone plus At Home Kit. It tests saliva at 4 different points during the day and is just as convenient as Everlywell.
Stress Reduction Techniques
You may be wondering about the best stress reduction techniques, so I have them quickly listed below! I also have an article that goes more into depth explaining the best ways to manage anxiety and experience stress reduction, so you can find the article “13 Easy Stress Reduction Techniques for Balancing Hormones” here.
- Get Outside
- Practice Deep Breathing
- Limit use of Alcohol and Tobacco
- Exercise consistently
- Learn to say No
- Reach out for help
- Nutrition (link to immunity boosting foods article)
- Spend time doing things you love
- Focus on Self Care
- Acknowledge feelings, find an outlet, self awareness
We all will experience stress. And it is through these stressful times that we learn resilience, determination, optimism, and ways to self soothe. By recognizing and managing chronic stress effects on the body, you can move past stress in a way that leaves you strong and healthy. Which stress management techniques have you found most helpful?
If you have any questions about stress management, please reach out to me! I offer free consults and am always here to help.