Although the symptoms differ from person to person, we can all relate to how chronic stress makes us physically feel. While others experience muscle tension, headaches, or stomach problems, some people experience trembling or a racing heart. We may not be aware of the fact that the physiological reactions we have to life's pressures and strains can have more subtle, less evident effects on practically every organ and system in the body.
Under chronic stress, your brain releases a series of chemicals that alter your body's physiology, including cortisol, epinephrine (also known as adrenaline), and norepinephrine. This alteration, sometimes known as the stress response or fight-or-flight reaction, is intended to aid individuals in responding to or overcoming a threat or danger we are confronting.
Ways Chronic Stress Can Affect Your Brain and Body
Here is a thorough examination of how stress can have an impact on the body's various organs and systems, from head to toe.
Chronic stress is the leading cause of inflammation in the body. Numerous health issues, such as diabetes and heart disease, can be brought on by chronic inflammation. A blood-brain barrier typically shields the brain from circulating chemicals. However, when under constant tension, this barrier weakens, allowing circulating inflammatory proteins to enter the brain. The hippocampus, a crucial portion of the brain for memory and learning, is particularly susceptible to such damage. Inflammation has been demonstrated to negatively impact brain regions associated with motivation and mental agility in studies on humans.
Additionally, there is proof that chronic stress has an impact on the chemicals in the brain, such as cortisol and corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF). Cortisol levels that are persistently high have been linked to hippocampal shrinkage and mood problems. Numerous health issues, such as irregular menstruation periods, might also result from this.
It is commonly shown in research that chronic stress can lead to depression. People who are predisposed to depression are also more likely to experience it on a regular basis. especially during stressful times. This can be attributed to a variety of factors, many of which are related to changes in the brain. A decreased hippocampus, which chronic exposure to stress hormones and ongoing inflammation can induce, is seen more frequently in depressive patients than in healthy people.
Disruption of sleep patterns and circadian rhythms is a typical aspect of many mental diseases, such as sadness and anxiety. Cortisol and other stress hormones are important sleep modulators. As a result, sleep can be hampered by high cortisol levels. By addressing chronic stress, it is possible to restore circadian rhythms and sleep patterns.
2) Cardiovascular system:
You can get ready to fight or run for your life while under chronic stress since it raises your pulse rate and blood pressure. These processes are meant to resume their regular state once the stressful experience has passed. But in the modern world, when we may come across a stressor after stressor, that isn't always the case.
Chronic stress can cause high blood pressure, adiposity (fat buildup), insulin resistance, and increased systemic inflammation. Chronic stress can last for months to years. Together, these increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes and promote the development of arterial plaques.
3) The immune system:
Stress hormones like cortisol travel to the immune system during a stressful situation or length of time and have a variety of dysregulatory effects such as an increase in inflammation, which is a major contributor to many diseases, such as dementia and cardiovascular disease.
Long-term or chronic inflammation can turn against healthy cells, leaving you more susceptible to infection, less receptive to vaccines, and slower to heal.
4) The gastrointestinal system:
Chronic stress slows the gut's ability to empty itself, which can make you feel nauseous, bloated, or constipated. The greater news, though, is that stress alters the gut microbiome, changing the variety of bacteria inside, and also interferes with gut barrier function in ways that make the gut more permeable. This means that bacterial byproducts from the foods you eat may seep into your circulation and travel outside of the GI tract, triggering inflammatory and hormonal reactions.
Considering the impact of stress on our health, what should you do if you experience it? Thankfully, there are approaches to handling it. You can lessen stress-related brain activity, systemic inflammation, and your risk of cardiovascular disease if you exercise frequently, get enough sleep, and take steps to manage your stress. Deep breathing exercises, gradual muscle relaxation, yoga, meditation, and aerobic exercise can all be used to reduce your sensitivity to stress by calming your body's reaction to it.
Adopting such tactics is wise given that stressful events and situations, both significant and minor, are likely to persist for some time to come.
Janvi Kapur is a counselor with a Master's degree in applied psychology with a specialization in clinical psychology.
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