How Does Stress Affect the Body?

Frances Gatta Heart Health, Stress

When you feel your heart racing, you might also notice that your breath quickens, your muscles are tensed, and your tummy is tied into a knot; you can often blame this on stress. Stress can cause you to experience many physical changes. It can also affect other areas of the body, from the muscular to the reproductive systems.

Of course, stress is unavoidable. In fact, it’s a normal part of being alive. And just how much stress impacts your body depends on the state of your human stress response system, how often you experience stressors, how severe the stressor is, and whether or not you can predict it. However, always keep in mind that you can limit how much it affects your health.

What is Stress?

Stress is the body’s natural response to a real or perceived threat. In today’s world, a real or perceived threat could be your final exams, wedding preparations, moving to a new country, a first date, or a heavy workload.

When you face a challenging situation, your body goes through changes resulting from the involvement of the nervous, cardiovascular, endocrine, and immune systems.

Under stress, the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes emotions, sends a stress signal to the hypothalamus, a tiny region at the base of the brain. The hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system, the fight or flight part of the nervous system, to help the body cope with stressors.

In this state, the adrenal glands (small glands located on top of the kidneys) release a surge of adrenaline. Adrenaline energizes and causes you to produce physical changes like increased breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure.

As the body continues to experience stress, the hypothalamus causes the human stress response system, also called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, or HPA axis to go into action. The adrenal gland releases the stress hormone cortisol into the bloodstream, giving you an extra energy boost and helping you stay alert.

When the stressor goes away, your body returns to a normal restful state. Your blood pressure and heart rate reduce, and breathing normalizes. You’ll also feel less alert or tense after you recover from a stressful situation.

All of these activities in the body are helpful in times of real danger, where running or fighting off the challenge is worthwhile.

But the body can’t differentiate between physical danger from daily life challenges or stressors, so it reacts the same way regardless of the situation.

If a person continues to experience stressors or experience them intensely, the body remains in a fight-or-flight mode, and the stress response system becomes harmful to health. Stress may put a person at risk of developing health conditions like:

  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Cognitive problems
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Mood changes
  • Sleep problems
  • Headaches
  • Obesity
  • Weight gain
  • Poor immune functioning

Types of Stress

You can experience stress differently, grouped into two types of stress. Both types of stress trigger the human stress response system.

1. Acute Stress

This form of stress is episodic or temporary. It happens when you’re exposed to an exciting, shocking, or scary situation like watching a competitive sport, arguing with a loved one, trying to meet a tight deadline, nearly escaping an accident, or preparing for a test.

Acute stress rarely causes any severe health problems unless it happens repeatedly. You can also experience acute stress while going through chronic stress.

2. Chronic Stress

Chronic stress occurs when stress persists for a long time. The body continues to produce stress hormones causing you to be in a constant fight or flight state.

Certain situations can cause you to experience chronic stress. These situations include financial problems, working at a stressful or unfulfilling job, managing a chronic health condition, etc.

Prolonged exposure to high-stress levels can increase a person’s risk of physical and mental health problems like cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes, respiratory illnesses, digestive disorders, sleep problems, anxiety, and depression.

Symptoms of Stress

Stress can cause many symptoms that impact your physical and mental function. It might be easy to ignore or dismiss these symptoms, especially if you’ve been going through stressors for a long time.

Here are some symptoms—grouped into physical, mental, and behavioral symptoms—to look out for that can indicate you might be stressed.

Physical symptoms:

  • Body pains
  • Tiredness
  • Upset stomach
  • Headaches
  • Low sex drive
  • High blood pressure
  • Skin problems like acne

Mental symptoms:

  • Poor concentration
  • Sleep problems
  • Mood changes
  • Burnout
  • Lower stress tolerance
  • Forgetfulness
  • Brain fog
  • Panic attacks
  • Making poor decisions
  • Pessimistic thinking
  • Worrying
  • Feeling overwhelmed

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Changes in appetite
  • Procrastination
  • Following unhealthy habits like leading a sedentary life, gambling, taking heavy amounts of alcohol, smoking, drug abuse, or compulsively shopping or using social media.
  • Emotional or social withdrawal
  • Losing interest in activities or things you used to love or enjoy

According to the Office on Women’s Health, women are more likely to report stress symptoms and experience mental health conditions like depression and anxiety that stress can make severe.

How Stress Affects the Heart

Acute or chronic stress can affect a person’s heart health. The activation of the stress response system causes changes in the normal functioning of the heart.

These changes in heart function show up as increased heart rate, blood pressure, and cardiac output. You may also have stronger heart muscle contractions due to your heart working harder under stress.

In addition, stress can trigger an increase in blood fat, blood clotting disorders, and problems with the arteries, veins, and vessels. And all of this contributes to a person’s risk of arrhythmia or irregular heart rhythm and heart attack.

Stress can also have an indirect, though equally significant, impact on heart health. For instance, when a person is stressed, they may engage in poor health behaviors, including living an inactive life, overeating, smoking, and heavy drinking. All of which have been shown to increase a person’s risk of heart disease.

Interestingly, evidence suggests that work stress can contribute to heart disease and high blood pressure. People who experience sudden acute stress may also instantly develop heart problems like a heart attack or broken heart syndrome.

Stress contributes to the risk of heart diseases, from triggering immediate heart problems like chest pain or heart attack to causing a person to develop heart diseases in the long run.

Evidence also suggests that chronic stress is tied to a 40 to 50 percent increased risk of heart disease. Stress may also lead to poorer health outcomes in people with heart diseases.

How Stress Affects Other Body Systems

Aside from the heart, stress can affect the normal functioning of other body systems, including the nervous, respiratory, endocrine, digestive, muscular, and reproductive systems.

Respiratory System

Under stress, the airways in the respiratory system constrict, resulting in symptoms like rapid breathing and shortness of breath.

The American Psychology Association highlights that breathing troubles can trigger attacks in people with breathing problems like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or other chronic lung conditions or worsen their symptoms.

Stress can also cause other health problems for people with respiratory conditions. A 2018 study suggests that stressful events can worsen symptoms of depression and anxiety in people with COPD.

Endocrine System

Stress and the endocrine system work hand in hand. On the one hand, stress causes the endocrine system to release stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. Conversely, the endocrine system determines how the body responds to stress.

In the long run, stress can contribute to developing endocrine disorders like Graves’ disease, gonadal dysfunction, diabetes, and obesity and worsen preexisting endocrine conditions.

Nervous System

Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, the part of the nervous system that kickstarts the body’s flight or fight response, preparing the body to respond to the stressful event by increasing heart rate and blood flow to the muscles.

When the body stops perceiving the stressful situation, the parasympathetic nervous system (the part of the nervous system that triggers the “rest and digest” response) takes over to help the body relax and recover.

Digestive System

The digestive system is the body system that takes in food, breaks down and absorbs nutrients, and eliminates food waste from the body. The digestive tract runs from the mouth to the anus. Stress can trigger changes to the normal functioning of the digestive system, causing you to experience symptoms like:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach pain
  • Constipation

Studies suggest that stress is tied to inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis. Although stress doesn’t cause these inflammatory bowel diseases, evidence shows that it can trigger symptom flare-ups or relapse and worsen symptoms.

Muscular System

One of the ways the body responds to stress is by causing the muscles to become tense to protect against pain and injury. When the stressor ends, the muscles relax as the body enters a recovery state.

However, research suggests that stress can reduce lean body mass and muscle strength, making a person prone to musculoskeletal injury. A small study suggests that stress can cause muscle strength to decline early, leading to falls and fractures in older people.

Stress is also linked to musculoskeletal pain, but more research is needed. A 2016 study observed that work stressors like working long hours, heavy workload, and lack of social support are tied to musculoskeletal pain.

Reproductive System

The effects of stress can cause reproductive health issues by affecting vital processes, including sperm production and function, sexual desire, pregnancy, and the menstrual cycle.

How to Manage Stress?

Everyone experiences stress. But you can control how much stress affects your body and reduce how often you experience situations that cause you to feel stressed.

Here are some recommendations to help manage stress:

  • Do breathing exercises: Breathing exercises help you to breathe slowly, calm your body and mind, and return you to a relaxed state.
  • Stretch: Stretches can help ease muscle tension or tightness and relax the body when feeling tense.
  • Journal: Journaling is an effective tool for managing stress levels. By putting your thoughts into writing, you can let out worries, fears, or other emotions causing you to feel stress. Studies suggest that gratitude journaling, which involves writing about parts of your life you’re grateful for, can reduce stress and improve wellbeing.
  • Prioritize rest: Sleep is as crucial to the body as exercise and eating a healthy diet. Prioritize getting adequate sleep to help your body refresh, recover, and restore itself.
  • Meditate: Meditation keeps you in the present moment by helping you stay still and recentering your mind to the here and now. When you meditate, you train your body to let go of stress and feel calm and at peace. Studies suggest meditation can help manage stress and stress-related conditions and improve general wellbeing.
  • Take care of yourself: If you’ve been dismissing the urge to do activities that help you feel happy and calm, it’s time to create space for them in your daily routine. These activities may include reading a book, taking walks, listening to music, and joining a yoga class.
  • Exercise and eat well: Nourish your body and mind by staying physically active and having a varied nutrient-rich diet regularly.
  • Create healthier ways to cope with stress: Stress can cause you to fall into habits that cause more harm to your health and wellbeing. To prevent dealing with stress with unhealthy habits, create a lifestyle that allows you to turn to healthy activities like taking a walk, doing yoga, taking deep breaths, or doing hobbies you enjoy to manage stress.
  • Stay organized: If you’re feeling disorganized, you will most likely feel stressed. Try to stay on top of your responsibilities by creating to-do lists that make you see through what you need to do and motivate you to achieve them.

Stress can seriously affect your physical and mental health. See a doctor if you’re having trouble managing your stress levels. They may refer you to a mental health professional who may identify why you feel stressed and help you create a treatment plan to help you manage your stress levels, improve your stress symptoms, and promote overall wellbeing.