Stress is defined as the body’s response to a perceived threat or challenge. Everyone experiences stress and knows it can be difficult to manage. Stress can negatively impact your health. Chronic stress is especially harmful to your quality of life and overall well-being. Stress can lead to physical symptoms, such as gastrointestinal issues, as well as mental symptoms, such as depression and brain fog.
This article discusses how stress can make your mind and body sick, as well as ways to cope.
Stress, Sickness, and Different Aspects of Health
When we are faced with a stressor (any source of stress, whether internal or external), our body is prompted to produce more stress hormones.
For example, cortisol—a hormone made in the adrenal glands—plays a role in our body’s stress response. Meanwhile, adrenaline controls our fight-or-flight response, raising heart rate and increasing blood pressure. Long-term, exposure to excess cortisol and other stress hormones can affect our physical, mental, and cognitive health.
Physical Effects of Stress
When your body releases stress hormones, it starts working harder to avoid (or fight off) the perceived danger. Cortisol prompts your body to release more glucose, (blood sugar) while adrenaline makes your heart beat faster and increases your blood pressure.
This process can lead to several physical symptoms of stress, including:
- Muscle pain: When faced with stress, we instinctively go on guard, which makes our body tense up. This tension may lead to chronic muscle pain, often in the lower back, neck, and shoulders.
- Headache: Stress-related tension in the neck, head, jaw, and shoulders can trigger headaches, including migraines.
- Shortness of breath: The airways in our lungs constrict when we’re stressed, which makes us breathe more rapidly and less deeply. Stress sometimes triggers asthma attacks in people with asthma or allergies.
- Gastrointestinal issues: The brain-gut connection refers to the many communication pathways between the nervous system and the neurons in the gut. Stress-related changes in gut bacteria may cause a host of gastrointestinal problems, from diarrhea and constipation to nausea, vomiting, bloating, and stomach pain.
- Insomnia: Extreme and/or chronic stress can cause dysfunction in the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, a system responsible for regulating our physical stress response. Overactivation of the HPA axis can cause various problems with sleep, such as poor sleep quality, insomnia, and frequent sleep disturbances.
Emotional Effects of Stress
Stress also impacts your emotional well-being and mental health. The emotional effects of stress may include:
- Anxiety: Stress can trigger or worsen anxiety, which involves overwhelming feelings of dread, fear, and apprehension. Even if the source of your stress goes away, you may continue to experience anxiety.
- Irritability and anger: Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS)—the system of muscles, nerves, and glands that enhances the fight-or-flight—and the HPA axis, both of which can also affect your experience of emotions like irritability, anger, and fear. Research suggests that there’s a strong association between stress and anger, especially among men.
- Relationship issues: Studies have found that stressed-out couples are more likely to fight regularly, to be dissatisfied with their relationships, and to be verbally or physically aggressive with each other. Chronic stress may also make you feel isolated and withdrawn, leading you to opt out of social events and family gatherings.
Cognitive Effects of Stress
When you’re stressed, your brain doesn’t have as many resources to devote to other processes, such as thinking, planning, and focusing. Here are some of the cognitive effects of stress:
- Brain fog: Brain fog refers to various cognitive issues, including difficulty concentration, lowered attention span, slower thinking processes, and inability to multitask. Research indicates that brain fog may be caused by neuroinflammation (inflammation in the brain and/or spinal cord). Stress can trigger chronic low-grade inflammation throughout the brain and body, leading some researchers to link stress to brain fog symptoms.
- Impaired memory: Possibly due to the body’s inflammatory response and stress-induced changes in the brain, stress can also affect our short- and long-term memory, as well as our ability to form new memories and learn new information.
- Decreased problem-solving skills: Acute and chronic stress have been linked to decreased problem-solving and planning skills. This may be because we tend to eat a less nutritious diet and sleep less soundly when we’re stressed.
The Effects of Chronic Stress
If left untreated, chronic stress can lead to, or increase your risk for, serious health problems. including:
- Heart disease: Over time, the release of stress hormones can raise your risk for several different cardiovascular issues, such as hypertension (high blood pressure), high cholesterol, heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
- Sex and fertility issues: Chronic stress can cause hormone imbalances, such as low testosterone, that can lead to various sexual and reproductive health concerns. These may include erectile dysfunction (ED), low libido, infertility, severe premenstrual syndrome (PMS), and irregular menstrual cycles.
- Autoimmune disorders: Due to stress hormone exposure and inflammation, chronic stress may increase your chance of developing an autoimmune disorder. Studies have found that stress is associated with the onset and severity of autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis (RA), multiple sclerosis (MS), Graves’ disease, and more.
- Depression: Stress prompts the release of cytokines—proteins that are involved in the body’s inflammatory response. Research suggests that pro-inflammatory cytokines may play a role in the development of depression and other mental health conditions.
- Diabetes: Research indicates that chronic stress can increase your risk of type 2 diabetes. This may be because of the release of cortisol, which increases your blood sugar.
- Alzheimer’s disease: Over time, chronic stress can alter your brain activity and cognitive function, increasing the chance of developing various neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease.
- Cancer: Chronic stress may promote the growth of malignant (cancerous) tumors. According to recent research, this is likely due to the over-activation of the HPA axis and the sympathetic nervous system.
Ideal Ways to Cope With Stress
There are many effective ways to cope with stress and prevent potential stress-related health problems, including:
- Cutting back on work: Cutting back on unnecessary tasks can be a significant first step to lowering your stress level. Try to lighten your workload if possible, or ask for help with household chores and childcare.
- Relaxation and mindfulness techniques: Mindfulness practices and relaxation techniques—such as meditation, yoga, and deep breathing exercises—have been shown to help to reduce stress and anxiety levels. They can also help lower blood pressure and improve sleep, reducing the risk of stress-related health complications.
- Peer support groups: Social support can go a long way in relieving day-to-day stress. There are plenty of online and in-person peer groups where you can find support and enjoy positive activities together.
- Exercising regularly: You might not feel like exercising when stressed. However, getting enough physical activity can help you clear your mind, boost your mood and reduce physical health risks.
- Improving sleep quality: Better sleep can help to improve your physical health, cognitive function, and emotional well-being. Create a sleep routine that helps you get the rest you need to stay healthy. You can start by going to sleep each night consistently and shutting off your phone, computer, and TV at least an hour before bedtime.
- Journaling: Keeping a journal can be a great stress relief. Try writing down several things you’re grateful for each day or reflecting on positive memories.
- Limiting alcohol and tobacco intake: When stressed, it can be tempting to self-medicate with alcohol and other drugs. Limiting your intake of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs – as well as unhealthy foods, caffeine, and sugary drinks – can help to reduce inflammation and improve sleep quality.
If you’re having trouble dealing with stress, talk to your healthcare provider.
Psychotherapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), may help you develop better coping strategies and problem-solving skills. Your healthcare provider may also recommend biofeedback, a therapy that can help you learn to relax your muscles, lower your heart rate, and lower blood pressure. Anti-anxiety medications can relieve some of your symptoms.
Stress is your physical and/or psychological reaction to any potentially difficult event, condition, or environment. When you’re stressed, your body releases stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, that prompt your fight-or-flight response. Over time, exposure to these stress hormones can affect your physical, emotional, and cognitive well-being.
You can cope with stress by joining a peer support group, reducing your workload, practicing relaxation techniques, or cutting back on alcohol and caffeine. Psychotherapy and anti-anxiety medications may help if you have difficulty dealing with stress on your own.
A Word from Verywell
Both short-term and chronic stress can affect your physical, emotional, and social well-being. If you’re dealing with the health effects of extreme stress, talk to a healthcare provider about potential coping strategies and treatment options.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do you tell anxiety apart from stress?
Stress is your response to challenging internal or external forces, environments, events, or situations. Sometimes, you may experience temporary anxiety—overwhelming worries or fears—as a response to stress. If your anxiety continues or gets worse even when your source of stress goes away, you may have an anxiety disorder.
What helps reduce chronic stress symptoms?
Building a strong support network, eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, journaling, taking time out to relax, and practicing mindfulness techniques are all possible stress relief strategies. Reducing caffeine, alcohol, and sugar may also help you manage stress and anxiety more effectively. If stress persists, you may want to talk to a loved one or healthcare provider about your symptoms.
What do doctors do about stress?
To treat the effects of stress, doctors may recommend lifestyle changes and self-care strategies. Your healthcare provider might also refer you to a therapist for cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Anti-anxiety medications may help to treat certain stress-related symptoms.
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