Stress doesn’t only wear on your mind—it wears on your body as well. When you start getting stressed out, your brain switches into “fight or flight” mode, also referred to as acute stress response, releasing excessive amounts of hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline. This process can result in physical health problems in addition to the condition’s psychological effects. So what exactly does stress do to your body?
Muscle tension is probably one of the first physical signs of stress. When your mind is tense, so is your body. Aches and pains become more frequent, especially neck or back pain. Most people tend to carry their stress in one specific area—the lower back, the top of the neck, or the base of the neck where it meets your shoulders. In some cases, this tightness can lead to more extreme symptoms, like headaches or migraines.
Immune System Problems
According to some experts, stress can be helpful in small quantities. It moves blood cells around so that they can do important things, like increasing adrenaline to help you get the energy to handle whatever stressful situation is at hand. However, when that reaction occurs frequently, it can start having negative effects and mess with the way the immune system works. Studies have found that people who are experiencing acute stress don’t heal from wounds, even minor cuts, as quickly as those who are generally more calm. Additionally, because the immune system isn’t as effective during times of extended stress, researchers have found that people tend to get sick more easily and stay ill for longer.
Short bursts of stress make the heart pump faster and stronger while dilating the blood vessels as well. This isn’t a bad thing if it only happens once in awhile. However, when it happens more often, it can cause some serious long term problems for the cardiovascular system. Experts have shown that stress gives you high blood pressure, and according to the American Psychological Association, prolonged bouts of stress increases your risk for heart attack and stroke. Estrogen in women can positively affect the way blood vessels respond to stress, so women are at an especially higher risk after menopause when estrogen levels lower.
Have you ever noticed when you get really nervous your stomach starts to hurt? That’s because your intestines join in the full body response to long-term stress. Specifically, your brain becomes much more aware of what is going on in your stomach, thus the feeling of nausea. Additionally, stress can change which nutrients your body absorbs from food, as well as how quickly your body digests it, resulting in either diarrhea or constipation. Finally, stress can actually increase or decrease your appetite, both of which can lead to an upset stomach, acid reflux, and heartburn.
Since men and women have different reproductive organs, they respond differently to high levels of stress. In men, the increase of cortisol messes with the way these organs normally work. Stress can alter the amount of testosterone in the body and lower sperm count. Furthermore, if you’re a stressed out man, it may be more difficult to achieve or maintain an erection, and you may even experience impotence.
Women, on the other hand, may find that their menstrual cycle leaves its normal schedule behind—periods may occur more frequently, at unusual times, or not at all for several months. Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) may get worse, leading to more extreme moods, more severe cramps, and more bloating, which are not easy to deal with when you’re already dealing with stress!
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