Stress Is Seriously Damaging Your Body
26 October 2018
Stress is an inevitable and largely unavoidable part of life, and always has been. We even have an instinctual stress response built into our genetic makeup thanks to evolution. Momentary stress, known as ‘acute stress’, is not necessarily terrible. It can motivate you through a deadline, or give you the energy boost you need to power through an uncomfortable situation until you can escape it. However, when the body is in a constant or continuous state of stress (known as ‘chronic stress’) it can have some very real and serious effects on your physical and emotional health.
What is stress?
When you are stressed your body triggers ‘fight or flight’ mode to try to help out. This response shifts all of your body’s resources towards protecting itself from immediate danger. It is inbuilt from our more primal ancestors, who used it to run from bears, or escape from sudden stormy weather, or defend themselves from an attacker; however, human evolution has not had time to adapt to our dramatically different lifestyles and working patterns that have become the norm over the past 150 years. Human DNA only changes 0.1% every 10,000 years, so we’ve still got a way to go!
Since our instincts are almost 10,000 years behind our lifestyle our stress systems are firing more often, and in response to situations where neither fight nor flight is practical or helpful (as much as we may like to sprint away from a meeting with the boss or throw a punch at looming deadline!). In many cases they are firing continuously. This is what causes some alarming effects on your body.
Why is it so terrible?
During ‘fight or flight’ mode adrenaline and cortisol is released into the bloodstream to give a rush of energy, making your heart beat faster, breathing increase, and blood vessels in your limbs dilate. It also signals your digestive system to change, directing higher levels of glucose into your blood stream. When the stress passes, the body goes back to normal; however, if you are in a constant state of stress your body is stuck in a cycle of disrupting all your usual processes as your nervous system works overtime. Instead of helping us push through, this pressure can make us feel overwhelmed or unable to cope. Stress requires so much energy that your body puts everything else on hold while it deals with it, and the rest of your body suffers as a result.
Digestion & Your Gut
As energy is diverted elsewhere in the body during stress, digestion falls down the list of priorities.
Chronic stress can mess with the speed that food moves through your gut and how well your intestines absorb nutrients, leading to IBS and other bowel disruptions including constipation and bloating. In extreme cases it can also cause you to develop stomach ulcers, or severe stomach pain without ulcers due to increased sensitivity. The increase in stomach acid prompted by stress can also cause heartburn or acid reflux. Pleasant!
Muscles – Tension & Pain
Stress prepares your body for a physical response – running, or fighting. If you’re sitting in traffic with stress rising because you’re about to miss a train or a meeting, your muscles will be preparing to flee even though this isn’t necessary.
Chronic stress means that your muscles will be in an almost constant state of tension and “readiness”, with increased levels of adrenaline and cortisol firing around your body. This can lead to other effects such as headaches and neck and shoulder pain. It can also increase your chance of a sports injury, and is likely to make your aches and pains from sitting at a desk all day feel even worse as your muscles tighten.
Exhaustion & Mental Health
Constantly firing up in this way requires a lot of energy, and can lead to fatigue, burnout, depression, and anxiety disorders. The surge in adrenaline, cortisol and glucose gives you the “rush” associated with fear, but chronic or frequent stress will cause your brain to limit or ‘ration’ the amount of cortisol it sends. This is what can make you feel like you’re dragging yourself through every day.
Chronic and/or traumatic stress can actually cause the part of your brain which is responsible for making memories to shrink, resulting in memory loss, difficulty concentrating, and trouble creating new memories.
Stress restricts your blood vessels and prioritises carrying oxygen and adrenaline supply to your muscles, which raises your blood pressure.
The surge in cortisol disrupts the functions of your artery walls which can lead to cholesterol build up, and the effects of stress also cause inflammation within your respiratory system. This is the perfect recipe for a heart attack or a stroke.
Stress hormones weaken the immune system. Stress puts cell regeneration and tissue repair on pause while it tries to help you prepare to deal with a threat, but this effect long-term is counterproductive.
Chronic stress will make you more susceptible to viruses such as flu and the common cold, and increase your recovery time from any other injuries.
Emotional stress can trigger overeating and hunger as a response. It also triggers your liver to produce extra blood sugar. Your body needs insulin to deal with that extra glucose in the blood, but guess what? Stress makes insulin production difficult too!
Fat is near impossible to shift in a stressed state while all your oxygen is being used elsewhere – it doesn’t have time to also metabolise fat into energy. You’ll end up craving sugar to get that energy, which brings us right back round in a circle to too much sugar in the body and not enough insulin to deal with it all. Great! Not only that, but cortisol retains and encourages a layer of visceral fat around your organs (the worst and most dangerous kind of fat FYI).
What can I do to help?
A lot of stress is unavoidable, and chronic stress may be due to factors which are out of your control. However, there are many ways to manage it. Although it may feel like the last thing you want to do, gentle exercise is an excellent stress-buster. Try taking a walk into town, or follow a yoga video from Youtube, or go for a short jog.
Support your central nervous system and overall health so that it can function at top capacity by paying attention to your posture and spinal health, and eating a healthy, varied diet.
Mindfulness and meditation are widely recommended as a tool for relaxation and de-stressing, and are excellent tools for learning how to relax. Relaxing isn’t as simple as getting an early night or spending an evening on the sofa; you need to learn how to give your mind space and rest, and encourage your body to follow suit.
Making small modifications to your daily routine can be a great way to implement lasting anti-stress tactics. Make an hour away from technology a regular part of your day, and build in 20 minutes of yoga or meditation. Vow to not look at your work email after 6pm.
If your chronic stress has been very long lasting, talking therapies may also be a good option.
We live our lives at such a hectic pace these days that it is very easy to forget basic self-care and let stress take over our lives. Stress breaks down our bodily functions so severely and in so many ways, yet we accept it as a normal part of life. It is not. You can’t be there for others if you don’t look after yourself first, and absolutely nothing is more important than your health.
Bank Workers Charity https://www.bwcharity.org.uk/mind/stress
American Psychological Association https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-body.aspx
Everyday Health https://www.everydayhealth.com/stress/guide/effects-on-body/
US National Library of Medicine https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5476783/
Mental Health https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/s/stress
Women’s Health Magazine https://www.womenshealthmag.com/health/g19989015/side-effects-of-stress/
Health Coach FX https://www.healthcoachfx.com/stress-body-mind-solutions/