If you’re like many Americans, stress can have a detrimental impact on your well-being.
In 2017, 75 percent of Americans surveyed said they had experienced at least one symptom of stress during the past month, according to the American Psychological Association. Nearly half of those surveyed reported sleeplessness one night in the past month, and more than one-third said they felt anxious, fatigued and irritable or angry due to stress.
Not all stress is bad, but long-term stress can harm your health.
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What is Stress?
Endocrinologist Hans Selye coined the term “stress” in 1936 and defined it as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change,” according to the American Institute of Stress (AIS).
“Stress” became a buzzword over time, and people started using the term to refer to unpleasant situations (an overbearing boss) or the result of repeated responses (ulcer or heart attack). The misuse of “stress” prompted Selye to create a new word — “stressor” — to distinguish stimulus from response.
The new definition of stress included good stress. Increased stress can result in winning a race or a life-saving event. This type of stress is called “eustress.” But when stress reaches a peak, you can experience a stress overload. Repeated and long-term forms of stress can have a negative impact on your body.
Stress is highly personalized, and knowing where to draw the line is difficult.
The Leading Causes of Stress
The APA’s 2017 Stress in America survey revealed recent changes in the leading causes of stress.
- 63 percent — The future of our nation
- 62 percent — Money
- 61 percent — Work
- 57 percent — Current political climate
- 51 percent — Violence and crime
Typically, money and work are two sources of stress that consistently top other stressors, but “the future of our nation” is a new source of significant stress. Within this cause of stress, Americans are concerned about healthcare, the economy and trust in government, among other causes.
The Science of How Stress Impacts Your Body
The stress response begins in your brain, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
If you’re in the path of an oncoming car, your eyes and ears sense danger and send information through the brain to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus acts as a command center. It communicates with the rest of your body in the autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary bodily functions, such as breathing.
The autonomic nervous system has two components: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system triggers the flight-or-flight response to react to a perceived danger. The parasympathetic nervous system stimulates a calm response in your body after the danger has passed.
Continuing the Stress Response
The stress response proceeds so quickly that you aren’t aware of what happens. It’s how you’re able to jump out of the way of an oncoming car before you think about what you’re doing. Even before your brain’s visual centers process what’s happening, the amygdala and hypothalamus start the following series of events:
- The hypothalamus sends signals through the autonomic nerves to the adrenal glands, activating the sympathetic nervous system.
- The glands respond by pumping adrenaline into the bloodstream.
- Adrenaline circulates through the body, causing a number of physiological changes, including increased pulse rate and blood pressure, rapid breathing and sharper senses.
- Adrenaline also triggers the release of blood sugar and fats from the body’s temporary storage sites, causing nutrients to flood into the bloodstream. This supplies energy to all parts of the body.
After a surge of adrenaline, the hypothalamus activates the second component of the stress response system, known as the HPA axis. The HPA axis consists of the hypothalamus, pituitary gland and adrenal glands, and it uses hormonal signals that keep the sympathetic nervous system active.
If the brain continues to perceive danger, it releases cortisol, which keeps the body on high alert. When the threat passes, cortisol levels decrease, and the parasympathetic nervous system dampens its stress response.
Effects of Stress on the Human Body
The HPA axis being active for too long has ties to the effects of stress on your body. Persistent adrenaline surges and elevated cortisol levels are part of why repeated and long-term stress can lead to health issues.
The APA has identified several effects that stress can have on your body:
- Musculoskeletal System: Muscles tense as a reflex reaction to stress. Chronic stress can lead to tension and migraine headaches, as well as other stress-related musculoskeletal conditions. It can undermine recovery from chronic painful conditions.
- Respiratory System: Stress causes you to breathe harder, and getting oxygen can become difficult if you have a lung disease like emphysema. If you have asthma, excess stress can cause an asthma attack. Rapid breathing also can lead to a panic attack.
- Cardiovascular System: Acute stress increases heart rate and produces stronger contractions of the heart muscle. Chronic stress can lead to long-term problems for the heart and blood vessels, which can increase risks for hypertension, heart attack or stroke.
- Endocrine System: The liver produces more glucose when stressed. Extra blood sugar can cause diabetes for those vulnerable to it, including the obese.
- Gastrointestinal System: When stressed, you may eat more food or less food than necessary. If the food you’re eating causes heartburn, stress will increase the pain. The stomach may react to severe stress with nausea, pain or vomiting. If stress is chronic, severe stomach pain and ulcers can develop. Stress can affect digestion and what nutrients are absorbed into the intestines. Food can move through the body at a different pace, leading to diarrhea or constipation.
- Nervous System: The fight-or-flight response results in hormones that may elevate heart rate and blood pressure, alter digestion and boost glucose levels.
- Reproductive Systems: Excess cortisol affects your reproductive system. Chronic stress for men can impair testosterone and sperm production, as well as cause impotence. Women can experience absent or irregular menstrual cycles or more painful periods, as well as reduced sexual desire.
Stress can also make existing problems worse and can lead to mental health issues like depression and anxiety.
Help People Manage Their Mental (and Physical) Health
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Infographic Transcript: Effects of Stress on the Body
You’re up against a deadline at work, and you feel the stress building. You begin to sweat. Your heart is beating fast, and your muscles are tightening.
Stress affects our bodies every day, whether we realize it or not. While some research has shown that small levels of stress are good for you, too much stress on the human body can be harmful.
Stress can cause headaches, muscle tension or pain, chest pain, and general fatigue. It can also affect your mood, making you anxious and restless, especially with the feeling of being overwhelmed, which can lead to sadness, irritability or depression. Too much stress can also affect your behavior, change your eating habits, prompt angry outbursts and lead to drug and/or alcohol abuse.
Stress affects various parts of the human body in different ways. Here’s a look at how stress affects some of our major organs:
Brain: Headache, migraine: Stress can trigger headaches or migraines.
Throat: Difficulty breathing: Stress can lead to hyperventilation or asthma attacks. It can also lead to acid reflux after eating.
Heart: Heart problems: Long-term stress can cause heart issues that can lead to a heart attack, hypertension or stroke. Women are also at risk for heart disease, depending on their estrogen levels.
Blood Vessels: Adrenaline: Stress causes the release of adrenaline and other stress hormones, which during a prolonged period of time can lead to issues, including with post-menopausal women.
Liver: Diabetes/Glucose: When stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine are released, the liver produces additional glucose – blood sugar – to give the body energy for a “flight or fight” scenario. But for some people, additional sugar production can lead to Type 2 diabetes.
Stomach: Stomach ache: Stress can lead to stomach aches, nausea or pain, and some may vomit if the stress is overwhelming.
Intestines: Diarrhea: Stress can lead to diarrhea or constipation as it affects how your intestines absorb nutrients.
Nervous System: Fight or flight: Stress leads to the nervous system generating energy for the “fight or flight: response. During a short period of time, this response isn’t dangerous, but chronic stress can damage to the nervous system and body.
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