The psychological toll that stress takes on us is well reported. It can lead to depression, anxiety, insomnia, and irritability, among a host of other conditions. But less commonly spoken of is the physical toll chronic stress lays on our bodies. In fact, excessive stress can inhibit or affect most of the systems of our bodies, making it harder to function on a regular basis. It’s easy to make these claims, so let’s break down some of the most significant ways stress can affect your overall health.
Acute and Chronic Stress
Knowing the difference between acute and chronic stress is essential to understanding the threat of stress to our health. Acute stress is the type of stress most of us experience every day. It’s short term spikes of stress that you experience before it goes away — think traffic or dealing with a frustrating person at the store. Experiencing acute stress is normal and generally not dangerous. Chronic stress, on the other hand, is sustained, long-term instances of stress that can and does cause lasting damage to our health. That is the type we’ll be focusing on since acute stress usually doesn’t cause health concerns.
Stress, Your Heart, and the Cardiovascular System
Stress is a significant factor in the overall health of your heart and the cardiovascular system. Though the American Heart Association notes that more research is needed to confirm a direct link between excessive stress and heart disease, they note that stress influences a number of factors involved in heart disease. For example, stress could raise our blood pressure, though this is a temporary spike in acute stress. In chronic stress, the spike in blood pressure becomes sustained, which can cause long-term damage to your cardiovascular system — including your heart, blood vessels, and kidneys.
There’s even evidence that chronic stress disorders may lead to higher instances of blood clots, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke. Stress has also been linked with unhealthy coping mechanisms like smoking or overeating that can further damage your system.
Stress, Your Brain, and Your Nervous System
Stress is incredibly impactful on our brains. In this section, we’ll focus on the physical effects of stress on the brain, since mental health is an entirely different subject. Chronic stress does have a profound effect on your mind, potentially even literally shrinking it in size, which can have a large impact on brain function. One study found that chronic stress also creates lasting damage to your brain’s structure and it’s connectivity. These make you more susceptible to mental illness disorders like depression or anxiety. Another found that stressful events can even kill brain cells. Others found that prolonged and traumatic stress can rewire the brain to use more primitive parts of the brain, associated with survival over higher tasks.
As we age, the effects of stress become worse, since stress inhibits neural plasticity and damages neural pathways, which is how the body re-forms the brain.
Most profoundly affected by stress is your memory, which is greatly harmed due to chronic stress. As we age, the effects of stress become worse, since stress inhibits neural plasticity and damages neural pathways, which is how the body re-forms the brain. This can essentially make your brain age quicker. This damage can be reversed by doing brain-healthy and plasticity-boosting activities, helping you stay mentally sharp longer. That said, chronic stress and the damage to your memory and plasticity can increase your risk of dementia.
Stress, Your Stomach, and Your Gastrointestinal System
When you get nervous or stressed out, you may feel like your stomach is in knots. This is a physical sign of how stress can affect your stomach and gastrointestinal system. Specifically, stress can cause a number of digestive conditions that aren’t fun. For example, stress has been linked to an increased rate of constipation due to stress hormones in your system. At the same time, stressful events can cause factors that can also lead to constipation. There’s also a well-established relationship between stress and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) — sometimes called irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). There’s also a link between stress and diarrhea.
It can also influence your appetite, increasing or decreasing it depending on the person.
Stress doesn’t only influence your bowel movements alone. Heartburn or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) when it’s chronic can also be caused by stress, especially chronic stress. It can also influence your appetite. Whether it’s increased or decreased is different from person to person, though an increase is more likely. This can make weight gain due to stress eating common.
Stress and Your Immune System
One of the more concerning detriments of stress on the body is to your immune system. Chronic stress can actually make you sick by suppressing your immune system. In fact, one scientific review found that the effects can be “persistent and severe.” Suffering with chronic stress makes you more likely to get sick and stay sick longer. This is true of multiple types of illnesses, like respiratory infections. The effects of stress on senior immune systems, who already often struggle with weakened immune systems, are more profound. Stress has also been linked with lowering your lymphocyte levels. This can put you at a greater risk of viruses, while also leading to further stress-related conditions like depression or anxiety, which can further weaken your immune system.
Even if you’re proactive about your immunity and get shots (like the flu shot), chronic stress has been found lead to a weakened immune response to the vaccine. This makes the shot less effective, putting you at risk. So, not only can stress hurt your immune system, it can actively keep you from strengthening it, too.
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All this news may stress you out, which is the opposite of what you want. Luckily, you can take control of your stress and begin to make it better. So, how can you avoid chronic or excessive stress? Cultivating a happier life or practicing mindful meditation are good starts. If you feel you need professional help, remember that there’s no shame in admitting that. Luckily, if you’re enrolled in Medicare, it’s usually covered, too! Stress can hit you hard. Knowing the risks that it can present you shows you why it’s so important to avoid allowing excessive stress into your life.