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Understanding the Impact of Stress on Your Body and How to Live Stress-Free

Stress is an inevitable part of life, everybody experiences it. Whether it’s work-related pressures, personal challenges, or daily hassles, stress can affect us all. While some stress is normal and can even be motivating, chronic and excessive stress can take a toll on our body and mind. Let’s first define what stress is exactly; one of the earliest definitions of stress a force which indicates distress or strain upon both the emotional and physical makeup1.

Eustress vs Distress

There are moments of happy stress, termed eustress, such as starting a new job. Then there is sad stress, termed distress, such as the death of a loved one. Our bodies are equipped to adjust to stress and get back to homeostasis; this process is called allostasis. Unfortunately, this adaptive response can be inhibited depending on the degree of stress. This allostatic overload represents the cumulative effects of chronic physiologic stress, which may be generated by internal processes (such as anxiety) and by external factors such as chronic stressors or lifestyle choices (such as overeating or insufficient sleep) that also dysregulate the mediators of allostasis1. A consequence of chronic allostatic overload, aka chronic stress, can lead to many of our modern diseases, chronic illness, and poor mental health. 

I want to reiterate that not all stress is bad. It is when stress becomes constant, especially if it is constant distress, that it poses a problem. Eustress can actually improve our health because it motivates us and helps us be more productive. During eustress, we usually feel a sense of control and excitement. Contrastingly, distress has the opposite effect where it can hinder our productivity, make us feel like we are out of control, and that the whole world is against us. Imagine feeling chronically distressed? I’m sure a lot of us have felt chronically stressed or currently feel that way right now. Statistically, 90 percent of all American adults experience high stress levels once or twice a week; a fourth of all American adults are subject to crushing levels of stress nearly every day. A survey of American women revealed that 57 percent felt excessively distressed much or most of the time1. And these statistics are from before the 2020 pandemic. So if most of America is chronically stressed, it is not really much of a surprise that, according to the CDC, 6 in 10 Americans have a chronic disease and that the use of antidepressants, anti-anxiety, and anti-insomnia medication has been skyrocketing. 

But if stress is mental, how does it affect our physiology and immunity?

Psychoneuroimmunolgy studies the interactions between the behavioral, neural and endocrine, and immune processes3. Nothing in our body is an exclusive self-regulating system, it is all connected. 

So again, what happens in our bodies during stress? Lots of things.

  • The adrenal glands, located at the top of the kidneys, secrete the hormones cortisol and catecholamines (includes dopamine, adrenaline, and norepinephrine)2. These are essential hormones, although when produced in large quantities, such as when under chronic stress, can impair the immune system, cause blood pressure to rise, cause memory brain cells to shrink, and cause lymph glands to shrink.
  • The thyroid gland pumps out thyroid hormones which regulate our metabolism. In a life or death situation this would help us have more energy to fight or run. In chronic conditions it can cause insomnia, shaky nerves, heat intolerance, and exhaustion1. Since this deregulates the metabolism, people under chronic stress tend to lose or gain weight.
  • The hypothalamus releases endorphins to reduce pain. Under chronic stress, endorphins are depleted causing people to be more susceptible to headaches and body aches. 
  • The production of sex hormones is reduced. Long term, this can cause infertility, decreased libido and sexual dysfunction. In females, acute stress can cause an early menstrual cycle, but chronic stress can cause irregular periods or amenorrhea (loss of period). 
  • Digestive system shuts down. All of the blood goes to the muscles to prepare for whatever threat is coming, therefore digestion is not needed when faced with a threat. Eating while stressed can result in “bloating, nausea, abdominal discomfort or cramping, and sometimes constipation or diarrhea. Dry mouth is also a common symptom of stress. While it is of course important to eat, it is better to regulate your nervous system before eating or the food will not be digested properly. 
  • Glucose is released into the bloodstream followed by a boost in insulin. This is meant to supply a boost of energy. Under chronic conditions, it can cause deregulated blood sugar and insulin levels. This could lead to weight gain, elevated blood pressure, and high cholesterol.
  • The blood thickens and coagulates more readily. This is helpful if wounded. But most people are not faced with physical blows and are instead subject to blood clots which could lead to a heart attack, stroke, or embolus. 
  • Breathing increases. This, as commonly experienced, stimulates anxiety because it is shallow, rapid, and high in the chest. This is why taking slow deep breaths can greatly help us calm down. 
  • All five senses become acute. While this would be helpful when faced with danger, it can be harmful when experienced long term. It can cause us to constantly feel on edge, sensitive to light, smell, and pain.

This shows how stress impacts just about every single system in the body. This is why much of the world is faced with cardiovascular diseases, neuromuscular disorders, respiratory disorders, immunological disorders, gastrointestinal disorders, skin diseases, and many many other diseases and disorders. Of course there are a myriad of factors that contribute to disease, but stress is a large contributor. 

There are countless other effects stress has on us; the list could go on and on, but that would not solve the problem. We need to look at ways to reduce stress for the sake of our mind and body and those around us. 

How to Reduce Stress

Reducing stress when you constantly feel overwhelmed is not an easy feat. But understand that action is the fastest way to reduce the level of stress.

  • Time management. Make a schedule for yourself if that will help you manage your time in a more organized manner. Sometimes stress can result from feeling like you don’t have enough time to get everything done. Conceptualizing how you can get everything done will take some of the stress away. List things in order of their priority. But remember that you are a priority too and you deserve to schedule something in the day that will bring you joy. Be easy on yourself and don’t get frustrated at yourself if you weren’t able to do everything in one day.
  • Do what you can to reduce environmental stressors. Environmental stressors can be noise, temperature extremes, bright lights, people). At work, for example, try to make your space as comfortable as possible 
  • Nurture loving relationships. Having healthy and loving relationships can actually help to heal and protect against illness4. They can also reduce the negative impacts of stress, although unhealthy relationships will do the opposite.
  • Try to get restful sleep. Stress and sleep are known to be a reciprocal relationship, where stress can cause poor sleep and poor sleep can negatively impact one’s mental health5. Getting more sleep will help you think clearer, be more productive, and creative during the day.   
  • Eat a balanced diet. Stress can impact the level of micronutrient concentration in our bodies which are vital for optimal functioning. Magnesium and zinc have been shown to drastically decrease as a result of stress6. It is also important to ensure you are getting enough B and C vitamins as those need to be consistently restored. Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables will help maintain these vitamins and minerals to keep your energy up and stress levels at ease.
  • Exercise. Numerous studies have shown the benefits physical activity has on overall well being but especially the improvement in mood and management of stress. Exercise can significantly alter the CNS (central nervous system) expression pattern of several genes and pathways strongly related to vulnerability to stress, and various molecules have been already identified7.
  • Confide in someone. This could be with a close friend, family member, or a therapist. Having someone you can vent to or share things with can really help you feel supported. When dealing with something difficult, having someone to lean on can really lessen the burden. 
  • Journal. Journaling has helped me a lot because I am able to put my thoughts down on paper. It helps me organize my thoughts rather than them being all scrambled in my brain. 
  • Self care. Take time, ideally once a way, or at least once a week to do something that is just about taking care of you. This could be taking a bath, getting a massage, or reading a book. Anything that is giving valuable time to yourself to just enjoy life and be peaceful.
  • Practice mindfulness and meditation. Meditation has been found to positively impact mental health and improve brain pathways. In fact, during the process of meditation, accumulated stresses are removed, energy is increased, and health is positively affected overall8.
  • Learn to say no. There may be times when life is super busy and you don’t have the time to say yes to everything. Of course it can be hard to say no when your friends are asking you to go out, but sometimes saying yes to those things can spread you too thin. Make the time when it makes sense for you schedule and it won’t be over exerting yourself.
  • Essential oils and herbs. Aromatherapy can help relax our nervous system such as lavender essential oil or chamomile. There are also many adaptogenic herbs such as ashwagandha or kava-kava. Valerian root has also been shown to decrease anxiety and improve sleep9. I suggest further research before using any of these to make sure they are right for you.

Although social support and our relationships are important, you do not need anything outside of yourself to manage your stress in a healthy way. Drinking, smoking, and drugs may be common quick fixes people use to reduce the stress of life but they can be harmful. They are also things outside of yourself. You are responsible for your mental well-being and you have the choice to take actions that will improve your state of being. You have control over your life. 

So while stress is an unavoidable part of life, it’s essential to recognize its potential effects on your body and take steps to manage it. By incorporating stress-reduction techniques and lifestyle changes, you can lead a more balanced, stress-free life that benefits both your physical and mental health. Remember, you have the power to take control of your well-being and embrace a healthier, happier life.

References

1.Karren KJ. Mind/Body Health : The Effects of Attitudes, Emotions And, Relationships. Pearson; 2014.

2.Smith A. Catecholamines: What are they, and how do they function? www.medicalnewstoday.com. Published July 24, 2020. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/catecholamines

3.Psychoneuroimmunology – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics. www.sciencedirect.com. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/psychoneuroimmunology

4.The Health Benefits of Good Relationships | Psychology Today. www.psychologytoday.com. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/a-new-gps-for-intimate-relationships/202206/the-health-benefits-of-good-relationships

5.Nollet M, Wisden W, Franks NP. Sleep deprivation and stress: a reciprocal relationship. Interface Focus. 2020;10(3):20190092. doi:https://doi.org/10.1098/rsfs.2019.0092

6.Lopresti AL. The Effects of Psychological and Environmental Stress on Micronutrient Concentrations in the Body: A Review of the Evidence. Advances in Nutrition. 2019;11(1). doi:https://doi.org/10.1093/advances/nmz082

7.Nowacka-Chmielewska M, Grabowska K, Grabowski M, Meybohm P, Burek M, Małecki A. Running from Stress: Neurobiological Mechanisms of Exercise-Induced Stress Resilience. International Journal of Molecular Sciences. 2022;23(21):13348. doi:https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms232113348

8.Sharma H. Meditation: Process and effects. AYU (An International Quarterly Journal of Research in Ayurveda). 2015;36(3):233. doi:https://doi.org/10.4103/0974-8520.182756

9.Bent S, Padula A, Moore D, Patterson M, Mehling W. Valerian for Sleep: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. The American Journal of Medicine. 2006;119(12):1005-1012. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amjmed.2006.02.026

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