Stress is an inevitable part of life; however, the effects of stress on physical and mental health are enormous. Stress affects every area of your life. Digestive problems, the immune system, reproductive systems, sleep, brain, heart, emotional irregularities, erectile dysfunction, breathing problems, anxiety, and depression are to name a few of the long list of things that stress affects.

What is stress?

I often hear from my clients, “But I don’t have any stress, Dr. Kaur.” So let’s see what stress is.

Do you ever feel like your day-to-day problems are piling up, one on top of another? Maybe it starts with a stressful commute to work, where the train is delayed. Now you’re already late for that important meeting at work where they tell you that there aren’t enough resources for your team to complete the project. After work, you pick up your child from daycare to find out that she has a fever. To top it all off, you can’t seem to connect with your partner because they are so immersed in work problems that they don’t even hear what you are saying! If this sounds familiar, then you are experiencing what some call “stress.”

Can stress be bad for you?

You cannot escape stress; everyone deals with it at some point. However, there are many negative consequences on the body when stress becomes prolonged. First, the term “stress” is relative to each person’s experiences and can mean different things to different people. In general, stress is a mental state that occurs when there is a discrepancy between the demands of a situation and one’s ability to cope. Stress can be influenced by many factors, including family history, genetics, work environment, marital status, social support networks, and lifestyle choices.

Stress impacts every system, including the musculoskeletal and reproductive systems. The good news is that our bodies are resilient, and we have a solid ability to cope with stresses and chronic illnesses. However, prolonged stress can cause serious health problems. Check out these warning signs that indicate you might be experiencing chronic stress.

The mechanics of stress – how does it work physically?

Stress response was initially intended to protect the population from environmental threats such as hungry prey. The stress response to life has the same characteristics as those in your ancestors, and it prepares the body for an action or escape; it is also called “flight or fight.” For your ancestors, stress responses were crucial in survival; there is rarely any situation in which you really need to combat and escape. For example, you need a strong stress response when a lion is in front of you that you either have to fight or flee.

In today’s world, we have created, what I call, paper lions: an unsafe boss, an upcoming deadline, or an unexpected traffic stop. There aren’t many situations in which you have to really fight or escape in your day, but we make ordinary everyday situations as life or death situations. This stress response – a fight response – helps the body deal with stress. The continual activation or damage caused by tension in the body can cause permanent deterioration.

How does stress affect the brain?

Stress negatively affects the hippocampus’s essential structure, resulting in impaired memory and trouble concentrating and orientation. This brain modification may evolve as a defense against memory in traumatic and stressful situations. This type of response to severe trauma can be beneficial for a person if they lack coping resources.

The brain controls your pulse, breath, vision changes, and more. The effects of stress on the brain can result in abnormal heart rhythms, blurry vision, and shortness of breath. Stress can sometimes be so severe that it results in a migraine.

Stress plays a role in releasing fat cells and can lead to weight gain. This is because stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine secretion stimulate the fight or flight response. Stress hormones are designed to help you take action in time of need, but they can remain high even when the threat is gone. It means that the built-up tension in the body will impact your metabolism.

Stress affects your muscles, causing muscle tension and stiffness throughout the body, including jaw clenching or grinding, which results in headaches and toothaches. The tension in the body can cause inflammation to aid injury. In addition, you become more susceptible to the common cold and viral infections due to stress affecting your immune system. In some events, stress can even lead to ulcers. Stress can also be associated with fertility problems in women and men.

Stress and the heart

You most likely will not have a heart attack from acute stress or a specific stressor. The real problem is the accumulated effects of chronic stress that change your physiology and chemistry in your body over a long time. Your arteries will harden due to the release of stress hormones in your body. High cortisol levels present in your bloodstream make your body secrete glucose in abundance to aid the muscle repair needed after a stressful situation like fighting a real lion or escaping it. High levels of stress hormones present in your body cause your heart and arteries to deteriorate over time.

Stress and sleep

Stress causes a lack of sleep and irritability, which leads to fatigue and depression, resulting in a loss of appetite. As stress increases, your body continually releases stress hormones, making you sleepless and preventing deeper sleep. This can result in hyperarousal insomnia when sounds or stressful thoughts easily awaken you. Stress and sleep is vicious cycle. Your sleep problems affect your stress, and your stress impacts your ability to fall asleep or stay asleep.

Stress and energy levels

When your body is under prolonged stress, it feels drowsy and tired. Your adrenaline is like batteries that generate the energy required for the stress response. Unfortunately, people over-use limited batteries in their daily jobs and personal needs, leaving them worn out. Eventually, you’re exhausted. Chronic stress leaves you depleted in energy.

How is stress diagnosed?

Stress cannot be measured with a measurement tool only if someone feels it will identify its existence or severity of effects. Often doctors ask patients about how stressful the stress on them is. In addition, your health provider may assess the symptoms of tension in the body when they diagnose it. In some cases, high blood pressure is easily detected and treated.

Is it stress or anxiety?

National Institute of Health describes that stress is your body’s physical or mental response to an external threat in the environment like a deadline, homework, or death of a loved one. On the other hand, anxiety is your body’s reaction to stress and can even happen when the external threat is no longer there—intense stress imbalances your central nervous system, producing symptoms like excessive worry or obsessive thinking. In addition, untreated constant stress produces emotional signs, physical symptoms, and or behavioral symptoms to cope with the stress.

How long does stress last?

Stress may have a short or long-term effect depends whether you are living an unhealthy or healthy lifestyle. Stress-reducing habits can be valuable for managing stress. Deep breathing, relaxation techniques, practicing tai chi, yoga, regular aerobic exercise, enough sleep, and good nutrition are all ways to handle stress effectively.

What influences our capacity to cope with stress?

The ability to manage stress is determined by several factors, including stressful events, short-term stress vs. long-term stress, physical health, daily life choices, life experiences, and the overall well-being of the individual experiencing stress. The good news is that you can adapt to a healthy lifestyle that increases your capacity to cope with stress. Stress management is an art, in my opinion than a science. You have to connect with your body, mind, and spirit to fully understand the whole self instead of just picking up some random techniques to cope with it. By understanding your physical reactions to environmental threats, you can appreciate the malfunctioning beliefs, fears, and past traumas that be the real causes of physical response to the environment. There’s no way to eliminate stress, but practicing some healthy and effective methods can provide stress relief.

You may have experienced some or all of the above effects if you’ve ever been nervous before an exam or even before a date. Still, you can’t really imagine experiencing all the stressful reactions your body goes through every day. The good news is that studies show that you can actively help reduce stress in your life and live a healthier life. The effects of stress on the body can be temporary or permanent, depending on your ability to deal with it.