Work, relationships, personal finances and more cause people stress every day. You might find you can’t stop worrying or that you are having trouble concentrating. However, you might be less conscious of the ways in which stress affects your physical health.
Stress not only affects your health in the short term, but it can have long-lasting consequences. Even if your stress is temporary and doesn’t interfere too much with your day-to-day life, it can still take its toll on your body. Here are the surprising ways stress can affect your health.
When you get stressed, your body issues a number of hormonal responses. The most commonly talked about stress hormone is cortisol. Cortisol is one of the hormones involved in your “fight or flight” response and is necessary for survival. But chronic overexposure to cortisol can result in some adverse health effects — many of which are on this list. Stress also affects other hormonal systems: your growth hormones, hormones that direct your reproductive system and even insulin, for example.
An increased heart rate is a well-known physiological response to stress. When you get stressed out, one of the hormones released is adrenaline. Adrenaline causes a temporary spike in heart rate, which is your body’s way of increasing the circulation of blood in case you need it to react to a dangerous situation. Many stressful situations we encounter aren’t physically dangerous — but your body reacts as if they are.
Stress triggers muscle tension. This tightness isn’t exclusive to any one muscle group — it affects the muscles in your chest and surrounding your lungs as well. It may feel hard to breathe or you may experience a sudden shortness of breath. A calming breathing exercise or slow stretching session may help.
This probably isn’t surprising to hear, but stress can put you in a really bad mood. People who experience stress are likely to experience irritability and mood swings as symptoms. Instead of snapping at your coworkers or being rude some other way, it might be worth trying some stress management techniques to see if you can help mediate the issue.
Stress and anxiety are not the same thing. But stress can worsen any existing anxiety condition you have. According to the American Psychological Association, stress is an emotional response typically caused by an external trigger, while anxiety is persistent, excessive worries that don’t go away even in the absence of a stressor. A buildup of small stresses or one major stressful event both increase your risk of developing an anxiety disorder or worsening an existing one.
Research has shown links between stress and depression. According to the Mayo Clinic, chronic stress can increase the risk of developing depression, especially if you aren't coping with the stress well.
Stress can trigger something called a tension headache, which can vary in severity depending on the person and the intensity of the stress. Episodic tension headaches can happen after a single stressful event, but some people experience chronic tension headaches from long-term stress.
Stress can literally keep you up at night, and there are a number of things that happen when you don't get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation causes a domino effect that can trigger other health consequences. According to the National Sleep Foundation, people with higher levels of stress tend to have poorer sleep quality. Stress hormones are at their highest during the evening, which is when you want to be primed for sleep. Too many stress hormones can interfere. Lack of sleep then causes an increase in stress hormones, which causes a further detriment to sleep — you see how this could quickly spiral.
If you’re stressed about an upcoming test in school, it could interfere with your ability to remember what you’re studying. According to a review of research published in EXCLI Journal, stress can result in a weaker verbal memory, reduced spatial memory, trouble accessing and creating new memories and even long-term memory disorders.
The effect stress has on your blood pressure is twofold. There’s a short-term spike in blood pressure as well as a long-term detrimental effect. In the short term, stress hormones cause a temporary increase in blood pressure. This spike is due to an increase in heart rate and narrowing of blood vessels. As for the long term, there’s no direct cause-and-effect relationship between stress and hypertension, but studies show that repeated spikes in blood pressure in the short term can increase the likelihood of high blood pressure in the long term. Additionally, coping mechanisms that people turn to during times of stress cause an increased risk of high blood pressure. These include smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol and neglecting sleep.
Stroke is a leading cause of death in the United States according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and there are many things you can do to prevent it. Limiting your stress and improving your mental health could be a good place to start. Research shows a significant association between stress and stroke risk.
“You almost gave me a heart attack” might just be an expression, but there’s a reason it exists. There really is a relationship between your emotional stress and risk of a heart attack. According to the American Institute of Stress, coping mechanisms associated with stress are significant risk factors for heart attacks, and heart attack incidents tend to spike after particularly stressful events such as natural disasters.
One of the hormones affected by stress is insulin. Researchers hypothesize that this may explain how diabetes and stress are so closely related. In fact, according to the American Diabetes Association, the stress-induced “fight or flight” hormonal response may not work as well in patients with diabetes. A study presented at an American Heart Association conference in 2018 showed that stress could increase the risk of Type 2 diabetes in women twofold. This may also be due in part to the sudden release of glucose that happens during a “fight or flight” response.
Stress can cause some serious upset in your stomach. Intense emotions triggered by stress can disrupt the usual flow of your digestive system, resulting in nausea, diarrhea, constipation, vomiting or stomach aches.
Food isn’t the only trigger for acid reflux. According to the American Institute of Stress, the sudden release of hormones alongside an increase in heart rate and other changes due to stress increases your susceptibility to digestive distress. Stomach acid is released and can cause heartburn.
It’s important to note that stress does not directly cause ulcers. Most often, bacteria in the stomach called H. pylori is the cause. However, the changes in acidity that happen during periods of stress can increase your risk of an ulcer — or upset an existing one.
When you experience a stressful situation, your muscles tense up in order to protect themselves from potential injury. If the stress is short term, your muscles relax again and it’s no big deal. But chronic stress can cause chronic tension, and chronic tension can result in muscle pain. Rather than relying on pain medicine, it’s best if you can treat the stress at the source to deal with these aches.
It’s not uncommon for people under significant stress to experience a lower sex drive. Hormonal shifts associated with stress may occur, as well. Something men should know about their health is there is a short-term increase in testosterone when under stress. If the stress becomes chronic, testosterone levels begin to decrease. Low testosterone can be a biological cause of a lower sex drive.
According to the American Institute of Stress, chronic stress can increase the risk of infection in male reproductive organs like the prostate and testes.
For women, stress can cause disruptions in the menstrual cycle. This can show up as irregular periods, something women should never keep from their doctor, as well as heavier or more painful periods and missed periods.
Menopause can cause women stress, and stress can also worsen the symptoms of menopause. Hot flashes, in particular, are thought to be triggered by or exacerbated by stress. In order to reduce the severity of menopause symptoms, it can be effective to try a few techniques in stress management.
In the short term, stress actually boosts your immune system. The “fight or flight” response triggers the immune system to act faster to heal any potential wounds. However, long-term effects of stress are negative. People who are under chronic stress have weaker immunity and are more susceptible to infections, including everything from the common cold to more serious illnesses.
Dealing with stress can be taxing on your energy levels. Some people even find they experience tiredness so severe it turns into fatigue that affects the body as well as the mind. According to research, there is a correlation between people who are stressed and people who feel fatigued. Stress is just one of many lifestyle factors that can drain your energy. To get the rest you need, here are 20 ways to make your room better for sleep.
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