The human body is designed to experience stress and react to it. Stress can be positive (“eustress”) — such as a getting a job promotion or being given greater responsibilities. This positive stress can keep us alert and ready to avoid danger. Stress becomes negative (“distress”) when a person faces continuous challenges without relief or relaxation in between. As a result, the person becomes overworked and stress-related tension builds. Distress can lead to physical symptoms including headaches, upset stomach, elevated blood pressure, and problems sleeping. Research suggests that stress may bring on or worsen certain symptoms or diseases.
When you encounter a perceived threat — a large dog barks at you during your morning walk, for instance — your hypothalamus sets off an alarm system in your body. Through a combination of nerve and hormonal signals, this system prompts your adrenal glands to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.
Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts energy supplies. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances your brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues.
Cortisol also curbs functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation. It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes. This complex natural alarm system also communicates with regions of your brain that control mood, motivation, and fear.
Once a perceived threat has passed, hormone levels return to normal. As adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, your heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels, and other systems resume their regular activities.
But when stressors are always present and you constantly feel under attack, that fight-or-flight reaction stays turned on. The subsequent overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones can disrupt almost all your body’s processes. This puts you at increased risk of numerous health problems.
Liver and pancreas issues. While under stress, the liver produces extra blood sugar (glucose) to give a boost of energy for the fight or flight response. While under constant stress, the liver does not know to stop producing the extra glucose. Your pancreas may not be able to keep up with this extra production of glucose and can lead to the development of Type 2 diabetes.
Digestive system. Your digestive system is a large network of nerves that is sensitive to the stress. An increase in stomach acid due to chronic stress. This leads to an increase in heartburn and acid reflux. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is thought to be caused by constant stress. IBS is identified as pain and bouts of constipation and diarrhea. Ulcers are not caused by stress, but are more likely to occur due to a decrease in your immune system.
Weight issues. The body produces high levels of cortisol during high stress situations. This hormone increases the appetite for consumption to gain quick energy (for the flight reaction) and increases blood sugars to give a quick boost of energy without having to consume energy. The increased appetite leads to a cravings for foods high in sugars and fats and a tendency towards overeating. When the excess glucose produced by the liver is not burned off due to exercise (via fight or flight), the body stores it as fat in the body’s tissues.
Immune system. Stress stimulates the immune system, which can be a plus for immediate situations. This stimulation can help you avoid infections and heal wounds. But over time, stress hormones will weaken your immune system and reduce your body’s response to foreign invaders. People under chronic stress are more susceptible to viral illnesses like the flu and the common cold, as well as other infections. Stress can also increase the time it takes you to recover from an illness or injury.
Mental health. Chronic stress means that the body’s alarm system never gets turned off. The increase in the hormones associated with the fight or flight reactions can cause a disruption in your sleep cycle. A lack of sleep means that the body is not healing as it should. This constant feeling of stress leads to an increase in irritability, depression, and anxiety. These mental health issues can lead to withdrawing socially which will then enhance the cycle of depression and anxiety.
Learning ways to deal with the stress in your life can be beneficial to your general health and the health of your relationships. Identify your triggers and find ways to deal with or eliminate these triggers. Deep breathing and yoga can help relieve the stress. Regularly scheduled self-care like facials and massage are effective ways to take a break from the daily grind and various stressors.