Each and every one of us experiences stress. Whether you are late for work, got stuck in traffic, are attending an interview or are sick, stress is a part and parcel of our day-to-day lifestyle. Stress in the short term can help you to cope with potentially serious situations such as meeting a tight deadline or avoiding an accident as it triggers your fight and flight response. However, too much stress can wear you down and affect you both physically and mentally. But what exactly is stress? What happens to your body when you are stressed? What are the effects of stress on your body? Well, here are all your queries on stress and its role in the body answered.
What Is Stress?
According to the American Psychological Association, stress is any uncomfortable emotional experience accompanied by predictable biochemical, physiological and behavioral changes. This means that when you get stressed, various hormonal and chemical reactions occur in the body which can affect the way you think, behave and respond to a particular situation.
In simple terms, stress is the body’s normal response to any situation. When you are stressed, there are numerous hormonal changes that occur in the body, which helps the body to cope with the situation. This chemical reaction is known as the fight-and-flight response.
What Happens To Your Body When You Are Stressed?
So if you are threatened or are stressed suddenly, the hypothalamus, which is a gland situated in the brain, sends out a signal to the adrenal glands to release stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones are part of the body’s natural mechanism to prepare you to fight stress and increase your chances of survival.
Adrenaline increases your heartbeat, breathing rate, and muscle activity. Cortisol, which is the primary stress hormone, increases the glucose production, helps the brain use glucose effectively, alters immune response, enhances tissue repair, and affects your mood, fear, and motivation. This response helps you to react quickly to stressful situations. However, when you are stressed for a longer period, the cortisol levels stay high for too long which in turn can have a negative effect on the body.
Chronic stress can cause a variety of symptoms such as irritability, headache, anxiety, and fatigue along with affecting your overall well being. It can also increase your risk of various health problems such as:
-Brain fog (problems with focusing, learning, and memory)
-Weakened immune system
What Are The Effects Of Stress On Your Body?
Most of us are aware of the effects of stress on our mood, emotions, and behaviors. However, very less is know about the negative impact of stress on key organs and systems of the body. Here is a brief on the effects of stress on the body and how different organs react to stress.
Nervous system: When you are stressed, either physically or mentally, the body diverts all its energy to fight the perceived threat. It triggers a flight and fight response and releases hormones which help control stress. Once the situation is under control, the nervous system usually returns to normal. However, if the stressor fails to go away or if you are under constant stress, then the response will continue. This, in the long run, can lead to various behaviors such as overeating, not eating enough, alcohol dependence or social withdrawal.
Respiratory system: During stress, the release of adrenaline causes you to breathe faster so as to improve the supply of oxygen-rich blood to other parts of the body. But if you are suffering from a breathing problem or respiratory disorder such as asthma, it can further aggravate the condition. Stress can not only make it difficult to breathe but also increase the risk of panic attacks due to rapid breathing (or hyperventilation).
Cardiovascular system: When stressed, it increases your heartbeat and lead to stronger contractions of the heart muscle. As a result, the blood vessels that supply blood to the large muscles and the heart become dilated. This, in turn, increases the amount of blood pumped to the other parts of the body and also raises your blood pressure. Chronic stress not only causes your heart to work hard for a long time but can also increase the risk of inflammation of the coronary arteries. This, in turn, can put you at risk of heart attack or stroke.
Digestive system: Stress can affect your appetite and the normal functioning of the gastrointestinal tract. It can cause you to eat less or more than you usually do, which in turn can up the risk of acidity or heartburn. The rapid surge of hormones and heartbeat can increase the level of stomach acid. Stress also affects the movement of food through the intestine, leading to nausea, diarrhea or constipation. If you also suffer from a stomach infection or gastric ulcer, being stressed can further worsen the condition.
Musculoskeletal system: Under stress, your muscles contract to protect you from an injury. But if you are stressed for a long time, the muscle may remain contracted for an extended period and this may affect its ability to relax, which in turn affects the proper functioning of the muscles. This, in the long run, can cause a headache, back pain, body ache, etc.
Endocrine system: The role of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol to deal with stress is known. However, these hormones also act on the adrenal glands and the liver. The release of adrenaline and cortisol cause an increase in the production of glucose and inhibition of insulin secretion to provide energy in the case of emergency. But if you are under chronic stress, the body may fail to utilize the excess of glucose and may increase the risk of diabetes.
Reproductive system: The excess amount of cortisol can affect the normal functioning of the reproductive system in both men and women. Chronic stress in men can affect the production of the hormone testosterone, which in turn can interfere with sperm production and increase your risk of erectile dysfunction. In women, stress can cause irregular menstruation or more painful periods. It can not only worsen the symptoms of menopause but also lowers sexual desire in women.
Immune system: Acute stress stimulates the immune system which helps you to fight infection and enhance the healing of wounds. But over time, the hormones can affect the body’s response to the foreign particles and affect the proper functioning of the immune system. This is the reason why people who are under chronic stress are more prone to infections such as cold and flu. Moreover, it can prolong your recovery from an injury or illness.
(The article is reviewed by Dr. Lalit Kanodia, General Physician)
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