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How Stress Affects Your Body

How Stress Affects Your Body


Nov 2015


The impact that negative stressors can have on a person’s physiological response to a situation has been receiving greater attention, especially as it relates to preventive measures in reducing risk factors for other conditions.  However, since the prevalence of illness related to stress reactions is so strong, it can be very important to truly understand how stress affects the body, since this can also provide solutions for coping.

Stress And Stressors

Before fully considering the physiological impacts, it can also be necessary to further define some of the terminology that is used.  Stress simply refers to a person’s reaction to a stimulus, and is actually neither positive nor negative on its own.  What generates the chronic conditions that can arise from ongoing stress has more to do with the manner in which an individual actually copes with the reaction.

Stressors are the actual stimulus or experiences that act as triggers to a stress reaction.  While these can often be seen as positive or negative, the overall impact on the individual is still closely related to the manner in which they perceive stress, and what learned responses can also influence the situation.

This actually returns to the statement that stress itself is neutral, and in considering individuals who thrive in pressure situations or use stressful circumstances to further motivate, it does become apparent that there are positive points to a stress reaction.

Fight Or Flight Response In The Modern World

During a stress reaction, however, the body does begin to undergo changes.  Once a “threatening” or even unknown stimulus is encountered, the brain begins to signal to different organs in the endocrine system to release a hormonal cascade.  Most notably, adrenalin is pumped through the bloodstream, and this generates the sensations of energy, focus, and speed that are associated with the fight or flight response.  Through human evolution, the stress reaction has served a vital purpose for survival in difficult or dangerous situations.

For people who use stress in a positive fashion, it is not that their bodies are behaving any differently in the fight or flight response.  However, from a perceptual standpoint, these are also people who can quickly assess how viable a threat really is, and are thus also able to calm the stress response more quickly, resulting in less lasting damage to the body.  Although people who manage stress in this way are less likely to have long term health complications from the reaction, even the short term adrenalin reactions can be taxing.

Primarily, people who face stressors in the modern world will go into a larger scale fight or flight response, although the issue comes to light when the stress response never subsides.  The perceived threats of the modern world do not always warrant a full adrenal cascade, and the result is that anxiety can build through the consistent presence or large levels of adrenalin and other hormonal secretions.

Stress Effects On The Body

Long Term Stress Reactions

As stated, short bursts of adrenaline can be positive stress reactions and can also play a vital role in survival, but when the physiological balance never returns to normal, then adjunct health issues can become a greater concern.

  • Hormonal fluctuations – as the fight or flight response is tied to the endocrine system, long term stress experiences can also result in imbalances for other hormone production.  Women and men may both experience changes in their sexual and health functions, and high levels of stress can even lead to amenorrhea.
  • Digestive issues – adrenalin can have a dual effect of reducing hunger and causing digestive discomfort when a person does eat.  Concerns such as ulcers, acid reflux, and bowel distress can all become long term issues in stress reactions.
  • Chronic exhaustion – although the body has a great ability to heal on its own, this process can still take time.  With chronic stress reactions, the body becomes quickly depleted of adrenalin, and the result is constant exhaustion due to the now lack of the hormone.  This state of exhaustion may also lead to increased chances of illness and infections.
  • Mood and cognitive function – although the exhaustion itself is a significant manner in which stress affects the body, this will also impact both a person’s mood and cognitive function.  Emotionally, stress is a state of overwhelm, and this can lead to changes in behaviors, difficulty in staying focused, and fluctuations in interactions with others.
  • Blood pressure and cardiac issues – long term stress reactions will significantly raise blood pressure due to the constant presence of adrenalin in the blood stream.  Further, the presence of this hormone can put a significant strain on the heart, as it causes the muscle to work harder.  Along with elevated blood pressure, the risk of a heart attack or a stroke is also increased in cases where ongoing stress reactions are negatively impacting a person.
  • Lowered libido – while this does relate partially to the general hormonal changes that occur in stress reactions, it can also be a function of the emotional strain of stress.  From a cognitive point of view, ongoing stress reactions are not only internal to the body, but also to the mind.  Constant distraction or fretting over stressors can play a large part in a lowered libido.
  • General aches and pains – several factors play into the prevalence of aches and pains for people with ongoing stress reactions.  Although the individual may not realize it, the stimulation from the adrenaline is causing isometric tension in the muscles.  This can also be compounded by the natural tendency to clench through stress, and this pressure can result in aches and pains.  However, the adrenalin in the bloodstream is also leading to a faster metabolism of muscle tissue, which also creates aches and pains in the body.
  • Trouble with sleep – this is a very common impact of stress on the body, and also has both physical and emotional components.  As mentioned earlier, cognitive distraction can create issue, especially if the weight of the stress interferes with relaxation.  Further, the physiological reaction of pumping a natural stimulant through the system will also interfere with the hormonal release for an appropriate wake and sleep cycle.
  • Changes in hair – this is also an impact of the hormonal imbalances that are generated when a person has an ongoing stress reaction.  Premature graying is a common occurrence, as is hair loss.  These are largely related to the fact that in speeding up function, the adrenalin is also causing the body to age faster, but nutrient depletion also plays a part.  Although graying cannot be reversed, hair loss from stress may be slowed and reversed as people work back to healing and balance.

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