he article does not replace a doctor’s appointment and cannot be used for self-diagnosis.
This reaction of the body helps to protect it in an emergency, preparing it to react as quickly as possible. But when stress is repeated day after day, it is devastating to health.
Experts call stress the “silent killer.” Let’s figure out what its danger is and how to avoid serious consequences.
What is stress and its symptoms
Stress is a natural physical reaction to life situations. Sometimes it is useful and even necessary, especially when an immediate or short-term response is required, such as in potentially dangerous circumstances. Your body responds to stress by increasing your heart rate and breathing rate and supplying oxygen to your muscles.
However, if this physiological response persists and stress levels remain high for longer than necessary, it can be detrimental to health.
However, in most cases, people do not pay attention to stress, while it takes a heavy toll on them. That is why it is important to know what its signs and symptoms are, as well as what the effect on the body is.
The most common symptoms of chronic stress are:
- memory problems;
- Inability to concentrate;
- Anxiety and constant restlessness;
- mood swings;
- Feelings of depression and loneliness;
- diarrhea or constipation;
- nausea or dizziness;
- Chest pain;
- Loss of sexual desire;
- Frequent colds;
- Poor or, conversely, increased appetite;
- Excessive or insufficient sleep;
- Nervousness, etc.
Due to such a variety of symptoms, stress can affect not only the state of health in general, but also all areas of life.
Stages of stress
There are 3 main stages of stress:
1. Mobilization phase. It is an immediate reaction to a dangerous or difficult situation. At this point, the heart rate increases, hormones such as cortisol are released, and the body receives an energetic boost of adrenaline to help it respond.
2. Phase of resistance. After the first exposure to stress, the body needs to relax and return to normal. However, if we do not overcome the situation that generates stress, the body remains vigilant and gets used to high levels of blood pressure and hormones.
3. Phase of exhaustion. At this stage, stress becomes chronic, and it becomes increasingly difficult for the body to deal with it. Its impact is felt emotionally and physically through various reactions:
- burnout syndrome;
- Weakened immune system;
- Gastrointestinal and cardiovascular diseases.
Stressful situations happen to us inevitably, but if we find a way to deal with them, many of their negative effects can be avoided or at least reduced.
Health problems resulting from stress
Emotional overstrain can literally hit almost all organs and systems. Let’s take a closer look at how stress affects our body.
- Effect of stress on the musculoskeletal system. When we are under a lot of stress, our muscles tense up as a physical response to the load. This automatic response is the body’s way of protecting itself from pain and injury. Only when the initial stress passes does our musculoskeletal system begin to relax and release the accumulated tension.
This buildup of tension can also lead to headaches and more severe migraine attacks. Most headaches, mild to moderate, are often caused by muscle tension in the head, neck, and shoulders.
Over time, these stress-related pains can create a vicious cycle. Some people stop exercising because of these discomforts and take painkillers. However, due to inactivity, muscle atrophy can exacerbate chronic diseases of the musculoskeletal system. After all, the human body is designed to move and be active, which is why many doctors recommend exercise to reduce muscle tension and reduce stress-related strain on the musculoskeletal system.
- The effect of stress on the cardiovascular and respiratory systems.
The long-term effects of stress usually lead to a wide range of cardiovascular problems. Stress hormones (adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol) cause blood vessels to constrict to send more oxygen and energy to the muscles. But it also raises blood pressure. As a result, frequent or chronic stress causes the heart to work too hard and at too long intervals. The constant fight-or-flight response takes a toll on the human body, leading to an increased risk of stroke and heart attacks.
In addition, ongoing acute stress can contribute to inflammation in the coronary arteries and vessels.
Thanks to estrogen, women’s blood vessels work better during times of increased stress, thereby protecting them from heart damage. However, postmenopausal estrogen levels are greatly reduced, and the female body becomes more susceptible to the effects of stress.
Stress hormones also affect the respiratory system. During the physiological response to stress, breathing speeds up to distribute oxygen-rich blood throughout the body as quickly as possible. But if you have breathing problems like asthma or emphysema, stress can make your condition worse.
- Effect of stress on the central nervous system. The central nervous system (CNS) is responsible for the body’s reaction to danger (“fight or flight”). In the brain, the hypothalamus triggers a response, signaling the adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol. These stress hormones speed up your heart rate in order to send more blood to your muscles, heart, vital organs, and other parts of the body that need it most in times of danger.
When the situation is “taken under control”, the hypothalamus should, in theory, signal all of these systems to return to normal. But if this does not happen, or if the source of stress does not disappear, these physiological reactions continue.
Chronic stress is also associated with behavioral disorders, including eating disorders, alcoholism, drug addiction, and social isolation.
- The effect of stress on the digestive system. When you are under stress, the liver increases the production of blood sugar (glucose) to give the body a boost of energy. But when it comes to chronic stress, the body cannot adapt to the frequent spikes in blood sugar. It is for this reason that chronic stress contributes to the development of type 2 diabetes.
Increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and stress hormones can also disrupt the digestive system. And because of the increased acidity in the stomach, the risk of acid reflux and heartburn increases. Note that stress alone does not cause ulcers, which are most commonly caused by the bacterium Helicobacter pylori. However, stress increases the risk of developing an ulcer and can worsen an existing one.
Increased nervous tension can also lead to diarrhea or constipation. Finally, people under stress can also suffer from nausea, vomiting, and indigestion.
- The effect of stress on sexuality and the reproductive system. It exhausts both body and mind. Those under constant stress often experience a significant loss of libido. True, in humans, short-term stress increases testosterone production, but this effect is not sustainable. And with prolonged stress in men, testosterone levels can decrease. Therefore, it can disrupt sperm production and cause erectile dysfunction.
Chronic stress also increases the risk of infections in the male reproductive organs, especially the prostate and testicles. In women, stress can disrupt the menstrual cycle, leading to irregular, heavier, and more painful periods. Chronic stress can also exacerbate the physiological symptoms of menopause.
- Effect of stress on the immune system.
It stimulates and strengthens the immune system, which is very useful in the face of immediate danger. In particular, strengthening your immune system can help you avoid infections and heal wounds faster. But over time, stress hormones can, on the contrary, weaken the immune system and, therefore, reduce the body’s immune response to “invasions” from the outside.
Thus, people who are chronically stressed are more likely to contract viral illnesses such as the flu, colds, and other infections. Stress can also slow down the healing of various injuries and affect our emotional health.
How stress can cause depression
It is perfectly normal to experience daily mood swings, ups and downs. But under conditions of chronic stress, the human mind is prone to depression. It happens when a by-product of stress hormones makes us feel tired or exhausted.
This feeling of low energy may persist and negatively affect the desire and ability to perform daily activities. This condition is known as “major depression”.
Major depression symptoms:
- Insomnia and other sleep problems.
- Prolonged fatigue, feeling of loss of strength.
- Increased irritability and arousal.
- Significant changes in appetite.
- Feeling worthless.
- Feelings of guilt and self-hatred.
- Feelings of hopelessness, which can lead to suicidal thoughts.
Those who suffer from major depression may develop other psychiatric disorders. If you are chronically stressed and have thoughts of self-destruction, seek help. This can either be a doctor or someone you trust and respect.
What exacerbates stress
Stress can cause, and in some cases exacerbate, some health problems. For example, these:
- Depression and anxiety.
- Pain of any kind in any part of the body.
- Sleep problems.
- Autoimmune diseases.
- Digestive problems.
- Skin diseases, especially eczema.
- Cardiovascular disease.
- Weight gain or loss.
- reproductive problems.
In addition, emotional overstrain can affect our behavior.
How stress affects behavior and personality
Stress hormones present in the body can damage brain cells. In particular, in the hippocampus, as well as in the frontal lobe. The hippocampus is the area responsible for memory retention, while the frontal lobe is responsible for vigilance (attention) and the use of judgment to solve various problems.
Obviously, those who are repeatedly stressed will subsequently have difficulties:
- Problems with learning new things;
- Preservation of newly acquired knowledge;
- Poor self-discipline;
- Low concentration;
- Difficulty in making decisions.
Stress and anxiety go hand in hand. Many people who are stressed have some form of anxiety disorder.
What determines the body’s resistance to stress?
Despite the fact that stress is harmful for everyone, the level of its tolerance varies from person to person. It depends on several factors:
- “Support Group”. A strong bond with family or friends can play an important role in dealing with stress. A person who can rely on others is less stressed than a lonely person.
- Feeling of control. If you are a confident person who believes that you are in control of your life, you are less likely to become a victim of chronic stress compared to a person who “goes with the flow” and blames circumstances for all his failures.
- Worldview. Outlook on life can protect you from chronic stress. If you are an optimistic and hopeful person who is ready to take on the challenges of life, you can easily prevent the harmful effects of stress on your emotional state and on your body.
- The ability to deal with emotions. If you have the ability to recognize and accept your emotions and manage them properly, you are much less likely to get caught up in chronic stress. At the same time, neglecting emotions is not at all a way out of stress, as many people think. You must give yourself enough time to deal with your emotions and overcome the detrimental effects of stress on your body.
How to deal with stress
According to the American Psychological Association, there are different types of stress, and there is no single method for dealing with them. So everyone has to find their own way.
However, there are a few general guidelines that might work:
- Temporarily move away from the cause of stress.
Once you identify the situation that is causing you stress, put it off for as long as possible. It’s not about avoiding a problem that you must solve, but about giving yourself a break from excessive mental stress.
- Go in for sports. Exercise regulates physiological processes, helping to cope with stress and anxiety. A 10-year study of 288 families found that those who exercise experienced less anxiety. In addition, they tolerate the first stages of stress more easily than those who do not engage in any physical activity.
During exercise, the body releases endorphins, which are natural pain relievers produced by our bodies.
In addition, hormonal activity decreases, so the body produces less cortisol.
Exercise makes it easier to fall asleep, so the body and mind get more rest.
Daily exercise such as walking, dancing or cycling, for example, will help you manage stress better.
- Practice yoga. Few exercises are as effective as yoga when it comes to stress management. In addition to the benefits of the exercises described above, research has shown that yoga acts as an antidepressant and sedative, as well as relaxing the mind.
In addition, yoga promotes concentration, which helps to mentally separate yourself from the cause of stress.
- Meditate. Meditation also helps to relax the body and mind. Focusing on the breath or the environment will force you to momentarily take your mind off the issue that is causing you stress. Taking a step back will open up a new perspective for you.
- Try natural antidepressants. Infusions of natural herbs such as valerian, green tea or lemon balm have been proven to reduce stress.
- Do fun and interesting activities with your family or friends.
Laughter is known to help relieve stress. In addition, listen to music, visit new places with friends or family, and take up hobbies like painting or making crafts. Doing interesting things will keep you out of trouble.
If none of this works, seek professional help.
- Stress is a physiological response to life’s circumstances, but if it persists longer than necessary, it can be detrimental to health.
- There are three phases of stress: mobilization, resistance, exhaustion.
- Stress affects the muscular, respiratory, cardiovascular, central nervous, digestive, and reproductive systems.
- Stress can lead to depression and exacerbate existing health problems, as well as cause new ones.
- It also influences human behavior.
- Resilience to stress depends on certain factors.
- You can minimize the effects of stress with simple guidelines.