From a never-ending to-do list at the office to housekeeping tasks at the end of the day, modern life offers lots of opportunities for stress. Somewhere in your busy schedule, you need to find free time for yourself.
But when you’re run down, even enjoyable moments feel like overwhelming obligations.
You’re not alone in feeling stressed out from time to time. But if you feel like it’s affecting your physical health, mental fitness, and ability to function, it might be a sign that the stress is becoming too much. Stress could be the reason why you’re feeling more socially anxious than usual, experiencing frequent nausea, or snapping at the people around you.
How does stress affect the body? Knowing the physical signs of strain in your life will help you recognize and find ways to manage it.
What is stress?
Stress is an innate physiological response to challenges or threats, which evolved from the fight-or-flight response. This response helps your body decide if, when faced with a stressor, you should fight the cause or run to protect yourself.
Your body is in a constant search for homeostasis, which is the body’s natural state of balance. When a stressful situation interrupts your body’s process, your mind wants to find balance again, which causes the body’s stress responses.
Throughout your life, you may experience different types of stress:
Acute stress: A stressful event, situation, or challenge, like preparing for an exam or feeling nervous about a life event, usually triggers acute stress. It creates short-term mental and physical stress symptoms.
Eustress: This positive type of stress motivates or encourages you to take risks and leave your comfort zone.
Good stress and bad stress have different effects on the body. Compared to distress, eustress is more like temporary nervousness than intense anxiety. It can push you to put in extra effort for rewards — like a high-stakes presentation or earning a promotion. Negative stress is more uncomfortable and can affect your day-to-day life if it becomes too consistent.
Too much distress pushes your body out of its natural homeostasis and leads to long-term impacts on your health, like muscle tension, respiratory problems, and high blood pressure. Understanding how it affects your body and mind is the first step to managing stress.
What happens to your body when you’re stressed?
The first responder to stress is your amygdala, a part of the brain that processes emotions and memory. When it recognizes a threat, it sends out a distress signal to your hypothalamus, your brain’s command center. The hypothalamus communicates with the rest of your body through your autonomic nervous system, which uses hormones to tell you to fight or flee.
During this process, your body quickly releases stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which might cause muscle tension, chest pain, and an increased heart rate. Everyone’s physical symptoms are different depending on your physiology, experiences, and the situation you’re confronting.
When you experience acute stress, your hypothalamus tells your body when you’re back to safety, and your hormone levels fall back to normal. But when you experience chronic stress, your body stays alert over a longer period. And over time, the long-term effects of stress on the body create various health problems.
What does stress do to the body?
The long-term effects of stress on the body affect more than just the mind. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), stress influences the body’s major systems like respiratory, cardiovascular, and nervous.
Here are some of the long-term effects that stress can have on different body systems:
1. Musculoskeletal system
As your stress level grows, your muscles tense, which can cause migraines and shoulder or neck pain. Chronic muscle tension and elevated cortisol levels can also cause catabolism, premature aging, and breakdown of muscle tissue which causes long-term musculoskeletal conditions and chronic pain disorders.
2. Respiratory system
Shortness of breath or rapid breathing is a common physical symptom of stress, and the discomfort can cause asthma and panic attacks. If your stress response is chronic, it can also deplete your immune system’s ability to protect itself from illnesses like the flu.
3. Endocrine system
The endocrine system is the network of glands that release hormones, including the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which reacts to stress responses. Overstimulation of the HPA axis can overwork adrenal glands and cause hyper-secretion of cortisol.
Over time, this depletes the axis’ functionality and can cause mental health conditions like depression and PTSD.
4. Cardiovascular system
During the stress response, your body pumps adrenaline into your bloodstream so it spreads throughout the body.
This makes your heart and other vital organs go on high alert, heart rate and blood pressure increase, and muscles tense. Adrenaline also prompts the release of blood sugar and fats that fill you with energy.
When adrenaline surges through your body too often, it can damage your blood vessels and arteries, which creates high blood pressure and puts you at risk of heart attacks and strokes.
5. Gastrointestinal system
Stress impacts the functionality of the vagus nerve, which connects your body’s major organs to your gastrointestinal and immune systems. When it’s functioning normally, it helps limit inflammation and regulate hunger and digestion.
But chronic stress on the vagus nerve can cause chronic digestive problems like irritable bowel syndrome. Stress can also lead to constipation and nausea.
6. Nervous system
When your body experiences chronic stress, your nervous system tries to adapt to the constant need to return to homeostasis. But the more stress relief your nervous system has to provide, the less effective it becomes, which can lead to anxiety, depression, or hyperarousal to stressors.
7. Reproductive system
When you’re stressed, the brain pumps the body with cortisol to fill the body with energy. Excessive cortisol impacts testosterone production, which can result in declines in sex drive and sperm quality.
Increased cortisol can also cause irregular or absent menstruation, painful periods, and difficulty in conception, pregnancy, and the postpartum transition.
5 effects of stress on the mind
Distress from a toxic work environment or the lingering effects of trauma affect your mind and emotions just as much as your body. Here are a few ways stress affects the mind:
Poor memory: Many people experience memory lapses after traumatic or stressful events. Chronic stress can cause the brain to decrease memory function, making you forgetful or easily distracted.
Exhaustion and mental fatigue: The extra work your body does when it’s stressed can leave you feeling physically and mentally exhausted.
Lessened focus: Stress decreases activity in the parts of the brain that control cognition and attention, making it harder to stay focused. Likewise, mental fatigue makes it difficult to give your emotions the attention they need and practice self-awareness.
Emotional overwhelm: A cluttered mind can make your stress feel worse. Your everyday routine might suddenly feel unmanageable or confusing, and you may feel increasingly indecisive.
Hypersensitivity: When your brain responds to stress, you become hyperaware of your stressors. That hypersensitivity could make you overly defensive or misinterpret situations that don’t pose a real threat.
6 effects of stress on behavior
Stress overwhelms your mind. It makes it harder to maintain your regular routine and interact with the people around you as you usually do.
Here are six effects stress can have on your behavior:
4 effects of stress on other emotions
Stress usually isn’t isolated. If you’re stressed about one thing, it can bleed into other parts of your life. Problems with a family member at home, for example, can make you feel more stressed at work.
And in extreme cases when stress is affecting your whole life, you can develop more serious mental health problems. Here are four ways that stress impacts your short-term and long-term emotions:
Depression: Living with depression affects your stress levels, and vice versa. Stressful events like the loss of a loved one or being let go at work can stimulate the onset of depression.
Anxiety: Anxiety and stress have overlapping causes and symptoms. Feeling anxious heightens your sensitivity to stressors, creates unmanageable worrying, and decreases your ability to deal with stress.
Loneliness: Stress can cause you to self-isolate or detach from social situations. Over time, social isolation and loneliness can harm your self-esteem and cause depression and anxiety.
Irritability: Overproduction of stress hormones can make you irritable, hostile, and moody.
What can you do to combat stress?
No matter how small, setting health goals and incorporating positive lifestyle changes can improve your stress levels. Here are a few stress management techniques to incorporate into your daily routine:
Remember that not all stress relief tips or techniques are effective for everybody. If you need extra help with your stress management, it may be time to seek professional help. An experienced therapist or mental healthcare professional can help you identify your stressors and create a routine that works for you.
Identify and manage stress
Once you learn how stress affects the body, you can better understand the signs in your own life. Whether you know it or not, stress could be the reason why you’re having trouble sleeping or feeling combative with the people around you.
Living a happy and fulfilling life means prioritizing health and caring for your mind and body, and that includes stress management. Whether you’re experiencing chronic or acute stress, you can find techniques that work for you.