Stress is something we all encounter at some time in our lives. For immediate current situations, stress can actually be good for your health. It gives the body the resources to respond to potentially serious incidents. But if your stress response continues and is left unabated it can have lasting effects. Many people think ill health is causing their stress but more often stress is responsible for many symptoms and can affect your overall well-being.
The American Institute of Stress reports that 77 percent of people in the U.S. regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress. Although the psychological symptoms of stress, anger, irritability or feeling nervous, can be uncomfortable, left unchecked it can have serious implications for your health.
Fight or Flight?
Stress is an entirely natural physical and mental reaction to everyday situations. It’s what some people call the fight or flight effect, for example if threatened the body sends messages to the adrenal glands to release stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones prepare the body by increasing the heartbeat and increasing blood flow to the organs that need it most. Increased blood to the muscles can prepare you to run away or an increase of oxygen to the brain may give you the focus to stay and deal with the situation.
When the threatening situation is resolved or gone, your central nervous system, in particular, the hypothalamus should tell your systems to revert to normal levels and stop releasing excess hormones cortisol and adrenaline. If your central nervous system doesn’t go back to normal, or the stressful situation doesn’t go away, the response will continue. Chronic stress can cause a variety of symptoms both physical and psychological. Let’s take a look at the effects of stress on the human body.
Stress Makes You Feel Exhausted
Stress in the short term can leave you feeling exhausted, it’s like your body’s on overdrive. The extra levels of the hormone cortisol that are released into your bloodstream, quickens your heartbeat, allows the brain to get more oxygen and releases extra energy needed to deal with the stressful situation. It is similar to the effects of a good workout.
But frequent or constant stress can cause your brain to limit the amount of cortisol it sends to the bloodstream which can result in you feeling fatigued all day. One way to defeat levels of cortisol that are too low is to take regular exercise, about three hours a week can help keep those hormone levels balanced.
Headaches as a Result of Stress
That feeling of a bad head, or even worse a full migraine is a common symptom. The ‘fight or flight’ hormones can cause vascular changes that result in tension headaches or migraines when stress is happening or sometimes 15 to 20 minutes after the event. Muscles also tense up during a stressful situation which can make the pain of a migraine so much worse.
After fatigue, headaches are the most commonly cited symptom, with 44 percent of people who experience physical symptoms suffering from frequent headaches. (source) Rather than just reaching for the paracetamol, try to headache-proof your home, reducing loud noises or stressful arguments. Again diet and a change in lifestyle can help reduce your headaches.
Higher Blood Pressure as an Effect of Stress
Stress hormones cause the blood vessels to tighten which increases blood pressure and when these hormones are around long term it leads to high blood pressure. Stress-related high blood pressure and/or the narrowing of arteries can be linked to a higher risk of both a stroke and heart disease. In a Danish study, patients who self reported high levels of stress had almost a doubled risk of a fatal stroke compared with people who weren’t stressed.
There are a good deal of breathing or meditation exercises that can help reduce your blood pressure and may also give your mind a worry-free period to eliminate stresses. Medications can additionally be prescribed if stress-related blood pressure is too high or if another medical complaint is causing you to be stressed by high blood pressure. It’s sometimes a vicious circle, but a visit to the doctor can normally help break this cycle.
Heart Health and Stress
Sometimes when we’re stressed we may feel slight palpitations in the chest. The link between heart attacks and stress hasn’t been fully proven but it’s not too far a stretch to relate increased heartbeats and higher blood pressure with damage to the arteries that can result in a heart attack.
A study by Boston Massachusetts Women’s Hospital found that women in highly stressful jobs were 40 percent more likely to suffer from heart or cardiovascular disease than other females of the same age. Many similar studies have reported the same findings and the advice seems to be; try to cut the stress from your occupation or leave it at the office. Some employers now provide counseling sessions for improved employee health and better productivity of their workforce.
Stress and Blood Sugar Levels
The liver releases more sugar (glucose) into the bloodstream for extra energy at times of stress which over longer periods of time can lead to type 2 diabetes. If you already have diabetes you’ll definitely find your blood sugars are elevated when under stress. Changing your diet, getting more exercise or adjusting your meds can help keep those sugar levels under control. Avoiding stress can also help with your diabetes care program.
Stress and the Digestive System
Stress hormones increase the production of stomach acids which can lead to heartburn or worse. The effect of stress on the digestive system can result in stomach aches, nausea, bloating and other tummy related problems. Chronic stress can interfere with hormones released by the thyroid glands that regulate your metabolism and may cause constipation. Drink more liquids, increase your fiber and maybe take over the counter medications if needed.
Pains and Aches Caused by Stress
The combination of heightened blood pressure and increased heart rate as a result of the fight and flight response can cause your muscles to tighten up and emphasize any pains, especially back pains you may have from sitting at a desk all day. Fighting off stress-related back pain can be as simple as getting up and moving about every hour and stretching a bit more during those long office days.
You may think that nagging headaches, excruciating back pain or a dodgy belly are caused by illness but quite often stress is the real culprit. If you have stress symptoms, taking measures to manage your stress can have many health benefits. Look at different stress-reduction solutions like regular physical activity, relaxation techniques like yoga, meditation or tai chi, socializing more with friends and family or making more time for hobbies like reading a book or listening to music. As your stress levels go down your health will benefit and you’ll feel better, which ia one less thing to stress about!