How Stress Impacts the Body

How Stress Impacts the Body and How You Can Reduce Daily Stress

Hundreds of thousands of years ago, our ancestors would feel stressed when our bodies knew we were in danger or that something needed to change to ensure our wellbeing. Back then, it may be that a tribe had moved in nearby and was using the same food source, when our children were doing something dangerous, or when the weather was harsh and we needed to protect ourselves from it.

Today, however, stress generally does more harm than good. Yes, it can motivate us to work to tight deadlines, rush to catch our flight, or leave a negative situation. But if that stress becomes unmanageable, it can be a hindrance to our everyday lives.


Stress is Mental and Physical

The nature of stress has changed notably in centuries gone by, and what’s left is a sense of heightened awareness of our surroundings, gritted teeth, and a sense that all is not well. In particularly bad situations, we’ll feel a racing heartbeat, start sweating, and feel like we need to act right now. This is known as the fight-or-flight response.

While that response is still necessary if we’re in a genuinely dangerous situation, our bodies don’t know the difference between stressed caused by nerves before a meeting, and stress because we fear for our lives. To our bodies, it’s all the same.

Momentary stress isn’t an issue, but prolonged stress is. Not only is a terrible way to live, it can actually affect our ability to prevent and recover from illnesses. Stress and anxiety are commonplace for most people. In fact, around 70% of American adults say they experience anxiety daily.


Stress and the Immune System

Our immune system is made up of an intricate network of cells, tissues, and organs that work together to defend our bodies against attacks from “foreign” invaders. There is a direct connection between outside influences (such as weather, the state of our mental health and our diet) and the efficiency of our immune system.


How does stress affect the immune system?

When we are stressed, our bodies release an increased amount of the hormone cortisol. This release of cortisol suppresses the non-essential bodily functions until the stressor has been eliminated. In other words, any physical functions the person doesn’t need immediately will be suppressed until they feel less stressed. These ostensibly non-essential functions include appetite (hence nausea, which we associate with anxiety), insulin production and immune response. 

The infamous fight-or-flight response also kicks in when the person’s body releases a high amount of adrenaline, which is gives us the heightened awareness and response needed to remove ourselves from a dangerous situation. While this can be helpful in the short term, if we feel it for a long time due to something like a job we hate but feel we cannot leave, it can cause damage in the body.  


The Inflammatory Response

Inflammation is the body’s response to a threat, whether that’s a foreign invader, like a virus, or an emotional stressor. The immune system responds by releasing pro-inflammatory cytokines to get rid of the invaders in the body. These cytokines usually do what’s necessary and then disappear. However, when the stress doesn’t go away, they may become upregulated – in other words, the body becomes accustomed to this cycle of stress and inflammatory response. 

Unfortunately, while the inflammatory response is good when we have a minor infection, it works against us over the long term. Many studies have recently noted that every major life-threatening disease has been linked to long-term inflammation.


Chronic Conditions Linked to, or Worsened By, Stress

As mentioned above, there are many conditions that are caused, linked to, or worsened by stress. Here are a few of the most common:

  • Cardiovascular Disease: A tense sympathetic nervous system, or the fight-or-flight response, also constricts blood vessels, forcing the heart to work harder, raising blood pressure. Heart disease is often triggered by atherosclerosis, which is brought on by inflammation. 


  • Rheumatoid arthritis: This disease is typically brought on when the immune system attacks joints, causing stiffness and pain. Inflammation can damage joints and bones in the long term and is partly caused by cytokines released by high stress levels. 
  • IBD (inflammatory bowel disease): IBD describes two conditions: ulcerative colitis, which only affects the colon, and Crohn's disease, which may affect any part of the body’s digestive system, from mouth to colon. Between 60% and 75% of people with Crohn's disease will require surgery to treat complications and repair damage to their digestive system. IBD is an inflammatory disease, but it is still unclear what causes it. 


How to Reduce Stress in Your Life

Mental health is intrinsically linked to physical health, and when one begins to fall by the wayside, so does the other. Unfortunately, those who suffer from chronic stress, anxiety or depression are more likely to make unhealthy decisions, such as avoiding exercise, drinking excessively and smoking.

Here are a few tips for things you can do to reduce your stress:

  • Don’t stay in stressful situations – this sounds obvious, but sometimes you just need someone to take a step back and get some perspective. If your job is making you feel intense stress and anxiety each day, is it worth it? Sometimes we go through seasons of life where we have to endure more stress, but if there’s something you can change to make your life easier, do it. Your health will thank you.
  • Make sure you get enough sleep – how much differs for us all, but make sure you get to bed on time. Even if you have insomnia, your body and mind can rest if you go to bed and simply lie quietly all night than if you stay up worrying about not getting to sleep.
  • Create relaxation rituals – have a bath, listen to soothing music, try a guided meditation on YouTube. Most find before bed or when they first wake up to be the easiest time to fit this into their schedule.
  • Drink soothing teas or use essential oils – there are numerous teas, herbs, essential oils, and other things you can take or breathe in to help relax your nerves.
  • Eat a healthy diet – often, our diet is the first thing to go out the window when we’re stressed. But do your best to eat plenty of vegetables and stay away from comfort foods. Try a meal delivery service if you have the budget and know you just need something you can heat up.
  • Exercise – even just a 20 minute walk each day can completely change the way you feel. You don’t need to start lifting weights or running a mile, just get your body moving in the way that feels best for you.


Of course, if you find that you’re suffering from chronic stress and anxiety and none of these methods are working for you, reach out for help. Nowadays, plenty of people seek therapy and talk to a professional to help them manage their stress levels, so do some research if you’re concerned about how your chronic stress is affecting your health.

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