Stress - how does it affect our body and mind?
You’re sitting in a traffic jam, late for an important meeting, watching the minutes go by…
Your heart starts beating faster, your blood pressure rises, your breathing quickens and your muscles tense …
This is the body’s defensive response to protect itself in emergencies – our body is being prepared for fight or flight.
What happens to our bodies in times of stress?
Stress is the body’s response to a threat. It can be a physical danger, emotional distress or any other situation that our brain interprets as a danger.
During stress, a series of physiological changes take place in our body:
- The hypothalamus detects the stress signal and initiates a stress response by sending chemical signals to the pituitary gland.
- The pituitary gland secretes adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which passes into the adrenal glands.
- The adrenal glands start to secrete stress hormones, mainly cortisol and adrenaline (also known as epinephrine). These hormones enter the bloodstream.
- The release of adrenaline activates the sympathetic nervous system, which prepares the body for immediate action – to fight the perceived threat.
- Adrenaline speeds up the heart rate and increases blood pressure, allowing faster delivery of oxygen and nutrients to muscles and organs.
- Breathing becomes faster and deeper to provide the body with more oxygen, thus increasing physical performance.
- Blood vessels in the skin and digestive system constrict, while blood vessels in the muscles dilate. This redirects blood flow to the muscles, preparing them for action.
- Cortisol causes the release of glucose (sugar) from the liver, providing the body with a quick source of energy it will need to fight or flee.
- Adrenaline enhances sensory perception, increasing attention and alertness so we can react faster and better to potential threats.
- The stress response temporarily suppresses functions such as digestion, reproduction and immune response because they will not help to deal with the perceived threat and are therefore not needed right now.
When the perceived threat disappears, the body gradually returns to normal – the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, promoting relaxation and restoring normal bodily functions.
If these situations occur from time to time, they have almost no effect on our health, mood or behaviour.
If stressful situations are repeated regularly day after day and stress levels are elevated for long periods, they can have a negative impact on our mood and behaviour, our immune system, digestive system and cardiovascular health… They can also contribute to obesity, which increases the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Chronic stress and health
Some people believe that stress improves their performance. But this is rarely true. Research consistently shows the opposite – stress usually leads people to make more mistakes.
Stress can not only “help” us forget where our keys are, but it can also have a significant impact on our health:
- Stress can increase tension and cause headaches.
- Stress promotes the release of stomach acid, which can cause or aggravate heartburn.
- Stress affects the body’s digestive system, which can lead to stomach pain, nausea and other stomach problems.
- Stress hormones speed up the heart rate and constrict blood vessels, which over time can damage arteries and increase the risk of heart attack.
- Stress interferes with the reproductive system in both men and women and can make it harder to conceive.
- Stress – and the fatigue that comes with it – can lower libido.
- The brain plays an important role in triggering an erection. Stress can interfere with this process and contribute to erectile dysfunction.
- Hormonal fluctuations can affect the menstrual cycle or, in severe cases, interrupt it completely.
- Chronic stress can make us feel emotionally depressed and cause depression.
- Stress makes it harder to fall asleep and impairs sleep quality, which in turn can lead to insomnia.
- Long-term stress weakens the body’s defences (the immune system) – the risk of infectious diseases increases.
- Stress promotes the release of extra sugar into the bloodstream, which over time increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
- Stress causes muscle tension, and chronic stress can lead to tension-related muscle pain, such as back pain.
In other words, chronic stress can affect our health without us even realising it. We often think that illness is to blame for annoying headaches, frequent insomnia or low productivity, but the real cause may be stress.
The most common symptoms of stress
On the body
On the mood
On the behaviour
Overeating or poor appetite
Muscle tension or pain
Outbursts of anger
Lack of motivation or difficulty concentrating
Drug or alcohol misuse
Changes in sex drive
Irritability or anger
Sadness or depression
Reduced physical activity
Effects of chronic stress on brain function
There is evidence that chronic (persistent) stress can actually rewire the brain. Animal studies have shown that animals experiencing prolonged stress have less activity in parts of the brain that perform higher-order tasks, such as the prefrontal cortex. Brain activity is concentrated in the primitive parts of the brain that are focused on survival, such as the amygdala.
It’s like if you only worked out one muscle group and neglected all the others – the muscle group that was activated more often would get stronger, while the ones that were neglected would get weaker.
This seems to be what happens in the brain – when it is under constant stress, all the resources are concentrated in the parts of the brain designed to deal with the threat, while the parts of the brain tasked with more complex thinking recede into the background.
Particularly harmful types of stress
Although the effects of stress on the brain are well documented, it is not clear what types of stress will increase health and memory risks in later life.
The stress that can occur before exams is likely to be very different from the stress that results from a car accident or long-term illness.
Of course, more or long-term stress is worse than a little short-term worry, but there are some additional factors that make stress even more harmful to us, for example:
- Unpredictable stress. Animal studies have shown that animals that could have predicted the stressor (e.g. received an electric shock after turning on a light) were less affected than those that received it by chance. In other words, if we can anticipate a stressful situation, it is less harmful to us than a sudden, unexpected stress.
- Stress without a time limit. If you feel stressed because of exams, presentations, etc., it will end after the exam or presentation. But if the stress is caused by the health condition of people close to you or by your financial commitments – you may be stressed for years.
- Lack of support. If you feel supported by people close to you or by work colleagues, you are more likely to cope better than if there is no support.
How to protect ourselves from too much stress?
To cope better with stress, consider how you may be able to reduce the factors that cause it. Here are some tips that can help you manage stress better:
- Try to have more control over the circumstances and events in your life. Establishing a daily routine could be a good start (predictability reduces the impact of stress),
- Sleep is very important. Lack of sleep can increase stress and make the parts of the brain that perform higher-order functions work less well.
- Plan your time. For example, make a list of your tasks for the day. That way things will not seem overwhelming. Making a list gives you a clear allocation of time and allows you to prepare for upcoming events.
- Ask for help if you need it. Talking to people close to you can help you become more resilient to a particular stressful situation and manage it better.
- Change your attitude to stress. Life without stress is not only impossible, it is probably quite uninteresting. A small degree of stress is growth-enhancing. In other words, instead of trying to avoid stress, try to develop as healthy a response to it as possible.
Life without stress is impossible and a little, short-term stress can really mobilise us and improve our performance.
At the same time, chronic stress can have a negative impact on our body, mind and soul, leading to a variety of physical and mental health problems.
By understanding how stress affects us, we can take proactive steps to manage it and reduce its impact on us and our lives.
Considering all the negative effects that long-term stress can have on our health – reducing it is really important.
Don’t hesitate to consult your doctor about stress management. In addition to diet, exercise and relaxation techniques, you may also need medication to relieve stress.
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