The Most Startling Effects of Stress on the Body
Published April 20 2020
The most startling effects of stress on the body may not be what you expect. While you know that feeling overly stressed isn’t good, research is revealing more and more the true risks it puts upon our physical and mental health.
From hormone changes and skin flareups to metabolism and digestive issues, there are many effects people never realize are linked to stress. Stress even affects aspects of your brain and its “storage” ability.
Thankfully, knowing about these effects can help lead to coping with stress triggers.
At this time where much of the world is especially on edge, seeing the effects of stress on the body we hope will be a reminder to give yourself more grace and allow space to find more peace of mind.
What Effects Does Stress Have on the Body?
In this blog, we will get into what effects does stress have on the body and provide insights into:
- Some of the top stress causers
- Tell-tale signs & symptoms of stress
- The way your bodily systems are impacted (and what you had no idea stress was causing)
- Self-care routines and simple rituals to manage stress
What is stress?
Stress, in the most medical definition of the word, is the body's reaction to harmful situations. Here’s the trickiest part:
Your body’s reaction (stress) is based on situations that are real OR simply perceived.
For example, when you watch a horror film, your body feels the perceived danger and reacts. It’s why heart rate goes up and breathing changes.
The issue is that stress, especially in modern times, is triggered by situations that aren’t literally happening. If we watch an overload of negative news or imagine losing a job again and again, our brains begins to perceive this has happened to us and responses kick in.
Stress is meant to help you (to a point)
When you feel threatened, a chemical reaction occurs in your body that allows you to act in a way to prevent injury. This reaction is known as "fight-or-flight,” or the stress response. During stress response, your heart rate increases, breathing quickens, muscles tighten, and blood pressure rises. [source]
(As we’ll share momentarily, these immediate responses trigger other responses throughout the body that, long-term, can create massive issues).
While stress can help you rise to meet challenges - sharpening your concentration when you’re running a marathon, attempting the game-winning free throw or driving you to study for an exam when you’d rather be watching TV - many of us go past the healthy stress levels. Beyond a certain point, stress starts causing major damage that can, however, start changing as son as today. [source].
What causes stress?
The situations and pressures that cause stress are known as stressors. We usually think of stressors as being negative, such as an exhausting work schedule or a rocky relationship. However, anything that puts high demands on you can be stressful. This even includes positive events such as getting married, buying a house, going to college or receiving a promotion.
Success can bring its own mental stressors and roadblocks.
Of course, not all stress is caused by external factors. Stress can also be internal or self-generated.
Excessive worry about something that may or may not happen can incite a wild amount of stress, even if that feared event never happens.
What are deemed the most stressful events
According to the widely validated Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, these are the top ten stressful life events for adults that can contribute to illness [source]:
- Death of a spouse
- Marriage separation
- Death of a close family member
- Injury or illness
- Job loss
- Marriage reconciliation
While these may be the top “big” milestones, we also want to share the more nuanced forms of stress. Because moments add up every day, from “little things” that create a long-term risk for your physical and mental health. In
“Small” moments add up to intense stress overtime
Stress at work
Especially if reading this amid the season of Coronavirus, work may be especially impactful at the moment. Whether switching to work from home, trying to work with kids around or having to go out to a deemed-essential job, this is often a contributor.
A high cause of distress that isn’t always discussed?
Anxiety from indecision.
Perhaps you find yourself dreading situations where you need to be the decision maker or procrastinate of having to decide (“Are we going to your mom’s or not?” “Should we put the kids at this camp or that one?” “I’m not sure if I want to go to the party”.)
Our brain’s energy spent dwelling on choices, ones we may even say no to, can make the dilemma bigger and bigger in our minds - causing stress. Over time, this adds up. (Source)
Especially if much of the world, life or career feels out of your hands, this is major.
Our brain prioritizes safety. When we don’t feel in control of that safety, it assumes we are in a potentially dangerous situation. It’s why you may focus on cleaning the kitchen when you can’t change friends bickering or a parent’s mind on something! Our brain seeks to have control in order to feel safe.
Retirement or unemployment
At the same time, if you recently retired, have experienced job loss or found great purpose in work and no longer have it, this can be an especially hard period.
Our heart goes out to every single person and family that has gone through a change in employment right now. So many companies are wrecked emotionally about such choices, and it feels incredibly hard to both sides of the equation.
Simply making coffee in the morning or deciding how to spend a weekday afternoon you’d normally be working may feel gut-aching.
How much stress is too much?
Because of the widespread damage stress can cause, it’s important to know your own limit. But just how much stress is “too much” differs from person to person.
Some people handle (or appear to handle) stress simpler than others, but the beautiful news is that anyone can find ways to help cope and access relief. We’ll share powerful methods shortly.
Why are some people stressed more than others?
Sense of control
If you feel a lack of ownership at work or as if your spouse/family/society makes many decisions without your input, it’s easy to spiral into feeling stress.
More and more research is uncovering genes’ unique effect on how people feel anxiety or sensitivity. We want to share this with hope. It doesn’t mean that if you tend to feel like an “emotional” or “sensitive” person that it’s a done deal.
This is a relief. There’s nothing wrong with you AT ALL if situations seem to affect you more than other friends or family members.
It simply may be a factor for you, and your coping may be different than others.
(Because what effects does stress have on the body? A lot of external and more controllable.)
Lonely vs. Solitude
Especially if reading this amid Covid19, social distancing has us spaced out. Perhaps you live alone, haven’t seen friends or family in a while or even miss being around humans - like the regulars at your local coffee shop. This is absolutely normal and while can have an effect on the body, it can be quelled with methods shared at the end of this article.
Unique brain and genetic makeup
If predisposed to depression or anxiety, stress may feel more intense and at different periods. Again, if this is you, you are not alone. In fact, as shared by this research from Dialogues Clin. Neursci., by Deborah J. Morris-Rosendahl, PhD:
“Anxiety comprises many phenotypes and clinical descriptions. It is routinely partitioned into disorders of general anxiety, panic, phobia, and in some classifications, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD); and the lifetime prevalence for the group of disorders has been estimated to be as high as 25%.” (Source)
What Are the Symptoms of Stress?
Stress in an initial moment of fight or flight, such as to jump out of the way of a moving car, can be life-saving.
The problem: In modern society, our stress response often keeps firing - far beyond biology’s original intention.
Stress staying elevated beyond necessary survival means is what leads to chronic issues, that may be happening to you at this moment. So, what effects does stress have on the body?
The Shocking Effects of Stress on Your Brain and Body
A little stress every now and then is not something to be concerned about. Ongoing, chronic stress, however, can cause or exacerbate many serious health problems, including:
According to the EXCLI Jurnal, the parts of your brain that store memory are affected by stress. This may be why tough times feel like a blur, like barely remembering what you ate or the time. (Source)
Heartburn and other digestive issues
- Increased heartburn, due to heightened stomach acid from stress
- The hormones released from stress can result in changes in appetite -- either not eating or eating too much
- As the body focuses on “survival” (stress assumes your body should focus on running from a bear vs. digesting oatmeal), the digestive system doesn’t function at maximum capacity and can lead to gastritis, ulcerative colitis, and irritable colon - even more gas, bloating and burping.
Weight management and immunity
Stress can affect your metabolism. How? Glucocorticoids, including cortisol - the stress hormone, help to regulating the immune system and to reduce inflammation, which helps in terms of short “survival mode” stress situations. Chronic stress, however, can add up and:
- Lead to metabolic disorders, increasing chances of retaining fat, having obesity or getting diabetes
- Immune disorders or an overwhelming tendency to get sick (Source)
Skin and hair
- Stress affects the gut - which deeply impacts skin - especially cystic acne
- Hair may begin to grey, become less lush or even fall out
- Psoriasis and eczema may flare up (Here’s a powerful, natural way to relieve skin flareups)
When stress affects hormones, those hormones ricochet into impacting:
- Menstrual problems, such as skipping periods
- Sexual dysfunction, such as impotence and premature ejaculation in men and loss of sexual desire in both men and women (Source)
If one’s heart rate is constantly up over-time, whether from minor daily stresses, much worry over TV news or a feeling of overwhelm, this can add up overtime. Long-term implications may have effects including heart disease, high blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms, heart attacks, and stroke.
Mental health, even when stress trigger is over
- Potentially increased depression or anxiety (If experiencing, please do consult your doctor - A trusted physician can give more support and see what else may be going on)
- Indecision or anxious at making choices
- Procrastinating and avoiding responsibilities
How to cope with stress, at home
While we can’t negate all areas of stress in our lives, the beauty is we can root down, get to know our triggers and experiment with ways that help us find relief.
Make one intentional choice each day
Since feeling out of control contributes to stress, a simple way to feel more ownership is to find one decision you can make and hold out that day. Perhaps:
- Pick a dinner recipe you’ve never tried and make it
- Decide to journal 3 things you’re grateful for
- Accomplish one “annoying” thing from the To Do list
Block out 10 minutes for this
Choose a video online of something that feels good for you. In as little as 10 (or even 5 minutes), giving yourself grace to have this little time off can go a long way in the rest of your day. For example:
- Yoga (Such as “Yin Yoga” that is gentle and restorative)
- Breathwork (Focusing on inhales and exhales, guided, helps to take mind off other things and can relieve digestion and nerves surprisingly quickly)
- Dance (A quick round of bouncing around and moving hips can do wonders)
Choose the right reading material
Decide what type of book your brain would most benefit from right now:
- A self-help book on people-pleasing, parenting or career may give the exact motivation and relief you need
- Getting lost in a story (modern or a tale as old as time)
- A biography on someone you admire but would love to learn more about
This is especially powerful because when our brain focuses on a story, it shifts out of the parts of our brain in the most fight or flight state.
Please see a doctor if...
If you or a loved one is feeling overwhelmed by stress, talk to your doctor. Many symptoms of stress can also be signs of other health problems. Your doctor can evaluate your symptoms and rule out other conditions. If stress is to blame, your doctor can recommend a therapist or counselor to help you better handle your stress [source]
P.S. Reading this during Corona?
In these times when frequent & thorough hand-washing is recommended, having dry and cracked hands - especially if eczema flares up - will only increase stress and more flare-ups. Nourishing with an all-natural, vegan moisturizer goes a long way in protecting it, by creating a barrier from harsh weather elements & providing great hydration.
While we can’t control all aspects of our day, little moments of caring for yourself can go a long way during stress.