You are having a bad day. Your car broke down, you are late for work, you forgot to bring the crucial files from home, and the list does not seem to end. All these little incidents, which might not seem that big of a deal at first, are the ones that affect you the most. These incidents are the leading players that trigger your brain to activate the production of stress hormones.
That is when you start to feel your body trembling softly, heart racing, breathing quickening, and before you even know it, your body is ready for fight or flight. This effect right here is what you call “experiencing stress”. While your body is naturally trained for adapting to stressful situations and combating them to some extent, the problem arises when you experience it daily. Consistent exposure to stressors affects your body and puts you at significant risk (1).
Hence, you need to know how stress affects your body (2). That way, you would adopt stress coping mechanisms and dodge the potential threats that stress poses. With that being said, some of the typical effects of stress on your body are,
One of the primary effects of stress on your body is your muscles immediately tensing up. It is a reflex reaction through which your body tries to cope with stress. The muscles readily tense up with the sudden onset of stress and gradually loosen up when the stress goes away.
However, if you are consistently facing stressors and your muscles are taut for more extended periods, it might trigger other body reactions. This can even lead to stress-related disorders. Migraine and tension-type headache are the two common effects of prolonged, chronic muscle tension. Other than that, musculoskeletal pain in the upper extremities and lower back is linked with job-related stress (3).
Reproductive System and Sexuality
As stress exhausts both mind and body, it is quite natural that you will lose all your desires as you experience constant stress. Even though short-term stress can lead to more testosterone production in men, the effect does not last long. Testosterone levels in man will eventually begin to drop when the stress continues to stay for more extended periods.
Such situations can interfere with the production of sperm and result in impotence or erectile dysfunction. There is also an increased risk of infection in male reproductive organs such as the testes and prostate with chronic stress. Whereas in women, stress can affect their menstrual cycle. This can cause more painful, heavier, and irregular periods. In some cases, chronic stress has also magnified certain physical symptoms caused by menopause (4).
Your gut homes millions of neurons that function independently and maintain a consistent communication channel with your brain. That is how you get to experience the feeling of “butterflies” in your stomach. But, when you are coming across stressful situations, the stressors can harm gut-brain communication. This can trigger gut discomfort, bloating, abdominal pain, and other similar aches (5).
Besides, the millions of good bacteria present in the gut influence your overall health, including your brain’s health. In other words, gut bacteria have an impact on your emotions and your ability to think. Hence, stress can make changes to your gut bacteria that can influence your mood. That is why eating food while experiencing stress helps in calming the body down and improving mood.
Continued exposure to stressors from early life can hamper the development of the central and peripheral nervous system. It also affects your body’s reaction to different types of stressors. Such changes can increase the risk of gut dysfunction or diseases in adulthood.
Chronic stress and its various effects, such as fatigue, lack of sleep, brain fog, and heart disease, lead to premature aging. A study found out that women taking care of disabled children experience more stress and hence age quicker than expected. The study had compared the telomeres of the participants with the control group.
Telomeres are the DNA’s protective sections that work as genetic markers for aging. The telomeres get shorter and whither with time as you age. In the study, it was seen that mothers who took care of disabled children had more withered and shorted telomeres compared to women with normal children. All 35-year-old mothers looked more like 45-year-olds after being exposed to prolonged stress. Therefore, it is clear that stressors has a significant role in your aging process (6).
Cardiovascular and Respiratory System
When your body responds to stress, your breath fastens to distribute the supply of oxygenated blood throughout your body. Moreover, if you have existing breathing problems like emphysema or asthma, stress makes breathing even more difficult. This happens because when you are under stress, your body makes your heart pump faster (7).
Your blood vessels constrict and divert larger amounts of oxygen into your muscles due to the increased presence of stress hormones. It is your body’s natural response to cope with stress. However, it also harms your body as it increases your blood pressure.
Therefore, when you experience stressors quite frequently, and too long hours, it overworks your heart for more extended periods. And when high blood pressure levels accompany this overburden, it increases your risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
Discomfort, bloating, and pain are felt more distinctively during bowel movements when you are frequently exposed to stress. It affects the rate at which food moves throughout the gastrointestinal tract, which can, in turn, cause constipation or diarrhea. Besides, it can even cause painful muscle spasms during bowel movements.
Stress affects digestion and the absorption of nutrients in the intestine. Therefore, gas production that is linked with nutrient absorption can increase. The intestines also prevent the body from harmful food, bacteria, and foodborne illness. However, stressors make the intestines weak, which allows the gut bacteria to get inside the system. These actions gradually weaken the immune response of the gut and make the gut nerves more sensitive (8).
Immune System Functions
The association between immune system response and stressors has been that individuals exposed to stress have an impaired or weakened immune system. Therefore, they are susceptible to frequent illnesses. For instance, women exposed to regular stressors and, hence, a weaker immune function have higher chances of suffering from cancer than those who are less frequently exposed to stressors (9).
However, in some cases, stress can stimulate the immune system that can work in your favor for certain immediate situations. This stimulation helps in healing wounds and avoiding further infections. However, over time, the stress hormones weaken the immunity system and reduce the response of the body to foreign invaders. Also, stress can increase the time required by your body to heal from an injury or illness.
Prematurely Graying Hair and Hair Loss
Stress causes telogen effluvium, a temporary condition that stops the growth of hair follicles. This condition results in the falling out of hair strands more quickly in time, especially when someone is brushing or washing their hair. Nevertheless, the hair is supposed to grow back after the stressful episode passes.
Moreover, when you experience chronic stressors for long periods, it can reduce your hair’s pigmentation. That is why many young adults are seen with naturally gray hair. Scientists say that the SNS (sympathetic nervous system) that looks after the flight-or-fight response also influences the stem cells responsible for hair pigmentation (10).
Therefore, when you are experiencing stress, the hair follicles’ sympathetic nerves release stress hormones that remove the pigment-producing stem cells from the hair follicles. Therefore, as the stem cells leave the hair follicles, there is a lack of pigmentation for your new hair, and you end up with all grays.
Getting a little sweaty when you are nervous is quite normal for everyone. But the situation becomes different for people who are experiencing chronic stress. It makes people sweat more than normal, and for women with menopause, it can result in severe hot flashes (11).
Hot flashes are caused by both hormonal changes and a flight-or-fight cascade caused by stress. The sympathetic nervous system gets heightened by the light-or-fight mode, which in turn elevates your whole body. Some other symptoms associated with hot flashes include anxiety, rapid heartbeat, and flushed appearance, along with blotchy, red skin.
Due to the connection between the gut and the brain, excessive stress causes skin issues in most people. When your body is under a lot of stress for a long time, it produces cortisol, a stress hormone. The presence of cortisol in your body for long periods thins the gut linings, allowing the toxins and bacteria to permeate and leak into the bloodstream easily.
The foreign bodies hyperactivate the immune response of the body that causes itchiness and rashes. It can even cause chronic skin conditions such as rosacea, psoriasis, and eczema (12). Other than your skin, you can also witness changes in the quality and color of your nails.
Increased Pain Sensitivity
Physical tension is a typical symptom of stress that almost everyone experiences. This even leads to painful headaches and other pain points in the back and neck. However, the difference is, stressors affects the intensity at which people experience pain. Sometimes pain can cause an exaggerated and severe response to a minor stimulus in some people (13).
A study that included children with consistent abdominal pain stated that stress reduces the children’s pain tolerance. Whereas in children with chronic pain, their stress level spiked when they experienced pain. Researchers believe that people undergoing stress have a heightened response to pain as it makes the hormones that help to cope with pain ineffective.
While you can experience various stressors daily, the good news is that you can adopt specific techniques to manage your stress. However, some methods are quick fixes while others would require determination.
Nevertheless, it is always better to go to a medical professional to get appropriate treatment for yourself.
Jessica enlightens her readers with her yoga practice and meditation tips which have become a crossroads for all yogis. From meditation to poses, C4H discusses all elements of yoga in a non-judgmental, inclusive way. Jessica provides readers with yoga resources, challenges, and awesome insights while cultivating an online yogi community. She also counsels people with sleep, gym, stress overcoming tips in this blog.