Stress has been shown to have an impact on practically every system in the body, not just one's mental health.
Stress has been ingrained in daily life as a result of the hurried lifestyle, peer pressure, scholastic and occupational demands, and difficulties. As per WHO, stress is a state of mental worry or tension arising out of a difficult situation When this state of worry becomes consistent and continuous to the extent that one feels pressurized and overwhelmed over a long period, results in chronic stress. Dr B.Unnikrishnan, Dean & Dr Nithin Kumar, Associate Professor of Community Medicine, Kasturba Medical College, Mangalore, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Manipal reveals how chronic stress can impact mental and physical health.
CHRONIC STRESS SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS
Stress can manifest in many forms ranging from fear, and anxiety to irritability, and includes a plethora of physical symptoms like headache, body pain, change in eating habits, irritable bowel, and difficulty in falling asleep. Continuous or repeated stress (chronic) stress can also affect the heart rate and blood pressure, thereby increasing the risk of hypertension. It can also predispose an individual to use alcohol, tobacco, and other substances, thereby increasing their dependency. When these symptoms become persistent, they will affect the daily functioning of an individual, at the workplace or school resulting in poor mental health outcomes like depression.
Longstanding stress can affect the physical and mental well-being of an individual and predispose him/her to a variety of conditions which can include the following:
- Cardiovascular conditions like high blood pressure
- Metabolic syndrome and type II diabetes
- Addiction to the Internet, food, or gambling
- Addiction to alcohol, tobacco, and prescription drugs like anti-anxiety drugs
- Anxiety, insomnia, and depression
HOW DOES STRESS AFFECT VARIOUS SYSTEMS OF OUR BODY?
- Musculoskeletal System: During the episode of stress, our muscle gets tensed or contracted, which is the body’s defence mechanism protecting us from injury. Chronic stress results in the body being in a constant state of tension. This is more evident with stress-induced headaches where the muscles of the neck and shoulders are tensed.
- Respiratory System: The smooth respiratory muscles between the nose and lungs can also get contracted during acute episodes of stress or emotional outburst manifesting as sudden difficulty in breathing or fast breathing. Emotional or stressful outbursts are more problematic among individuals with existing respiratory problems like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
- Cardiovascular System: The effect of stress on the cardiovascular system is well documented, with stress being identified as one of the modifiable risk factors for high blood pressure. Stressful events bring about the release of so-called stress hormones – adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol which prepare the body for emergencies. The release of these hormones is associated with a rise in heart rate and elevation of blood pressure, which falls back to baseline once the stressful event has passed.
- Gastrointestinal System: An uncomfortable feeling when anxious or under stress is due to the stimulation of millions of neurons in the gut. However, excessive stress can affect this communication between the GI system and the brain which can manifest as pain, bloating acid-reflux disease, and gastritis.
- Male Reproductive System: Stress over an extended period can result in low testosterone production which in turn can manifest in the form of decreased libido or erectile dysfunction. It can also affect the sperm count and its maturation, resulting in difficulty in conceiving among couples.
- Female Reproductive System: Menstrual irregularities along with painful periods among adolescent girls and women are usually associated with stress. Prolonged periods of stress can affect a woman’s ability to conceive and may affect her antenatal and postnatal health. During menopause, women experience a variety of symptoms which include anxiety, mood swings, and feeling of distress. This can further increase the emotional stress in the women.