Stress affects us all differently. Some can manage it better than others.
While a small dose of stress is a normal part of life, it can be harmful to your body if you let it go unmanaged.
How does stress damage your body?
According to the American Psychological Association, stress affects all systems of the body–musculoskeletal, nervous, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, and reproductive systems.
When you are stressed, your muscles tense up to protect themselves from injury and pain. It will only loosen up once the stress passes.
So when you are constantly stressed, your muscles will always be in a state of guardedness and won’t have time to relax. This will then cause headaches, back and shoulder pain, and body aches.
Research has shown that relaxation techniques and other stress-relieving activities can help decrease muscle tension and prevent stress-related disorders like headaches. Stress-relieving activities can also improve mood and daily function for those who develop chronic pain conditions.
Nervous and endocrine systems
Your central nervous system modulates your stress reactions. It signals the adrenal glands to release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which cause the heart to beat faster, respiration rate to increase, blood vessels in the arms, and legs to dilate, the digestive process to change, and glucose levels (sugar energy) in the bloodstream to increase to make you ready to fight or flee.
When the perceived threat is gone, it will tell all the systems to go back to normal. If the stressor doesn’t go away, the response will continue, and the central nervous system will not return to normal. As the nervous system triggers physical reactions, it causes “wear and tear” on the body.
It’s not so much what chronic stress does to the nervous system, but rather the effects of continuous activation of the nervous system on other bodily systems that become problematic.
Respiratory and cardiovascular systems
Your respiratory and cardiovascular systems are directly affected by stress hormones. When you’re stressed, you breathe in faster to distribute oxygen-rich blood to your body quickly. This is generally not a problem if you don’t have an existing respiratory disease, but if you have pre-existing respiratory diseases such as asthma, emphysema, or chronic bronchitis, stressors can worsen your breathing problems.
When you are stressed, your heart pumps faster, elevating your blood pressure. When your blood pressure rises, so do your risks for hypertension, heart attack, or stroke.
Constant stress over an extended period will make your heart work too hard for too long. This can contribute to long-term problems for the heart and blood vessels.
Gastrointestinal (Digestive) system
The gut is a sensitive part of the human body. It houses most of the digestive system and allows for the necessary absorption of nutrients taken in with food. Stress can negatively affect this vital area of the body, including cramping, bloating, inflammation, and a loss of appetite. It can also lead to diarrhea or constipation.
When stressed, people may eat more than usual or crave specific foods. Eating more or different foods or increasing your alcohol and tobacco consumption can result in heartburn or acid reflux.
Stress may also increase the severity of recurring heartburn pain. It can also trigger a rare case of spasms in the esophagus (sometimes mistaken for a heart attack).
It is important to note that stress doesn’t cause stomach ulcers; however, it increases their risk. It will also cause existing ulcers to become more bothersome.
In both men and women, stress has a negative impact on the reproductive system.
Chronic stress can have a negative impact on fertility, making it difficult for couples trying to conceive.
For men, prolonged stress can change their testosterone level. It can also affect sperm count and maturity and can cause erectile dysfunction. As stress weakens the immune system over time, the body will become more vulnerable to infection. A weak immune system increases the risk of infection to men's testes, prostate gland, and urethra.
For women, stress affects the menstrual cycle. It can also result in irregular, heavier, or uncomfortable periods. Chronic stress may also exacerbate menopausal symptoms.
How do you manage stress?
You can’t get rid of stress completely– it is just not possible. Also, stress can be healthy in certain situations. Before it becomes chronic, you can try to manage it.
- First, identify your stressors, triggers, or the things that cause you stress.
- Identify those things that can be avoided.
- Find ways of dealing with those things that can’t be avoided.
Managing your stress may not be easy, but it is crucial. Managed stress means better moods every day. It can also lower your risk of having stress-related diseases.
If you don't know where to start, you can start with these basic ways:
- Exercise regularly and maintain a healthy diet as much as possible
- Aim to have 7-8 hours of sleep every day
- Minimize your caffeine and alcohol intake
- Implement a “me time” to take care of yourself
- Make time for rest and relaxation. It can be as simple as going for a walk.
- Stay connected with people you love
- Learn breathing, meditation, and relaxation techniques
If it is physically and mentally impossible for you to manage your stress, or it is accompanied by anxiety or depression, consult your doctor immediately. These conditions can be treated as long as you seek help. Consider seeking advice from a therapist or other mental health professional. You don’t have to do it alone!