Stress: How it Affects the Body & How to Fight It?

Stress is a feeling we all experience when presented with a challenge or when we are overwhelmed. It is a hardwired response to the challenging situation we face that travels throughout our physical body. Experiencing stress for a short time is not damaging but if one is stressed for a long period of time, the flight and fright response from the body can change the brain and causes damage to other cells and tissues of the body. Stress is a big threat to the normal functional equilibrium and being consumed by stress can be detrimental to the body.

How stress can be detrimental to health-

The impact of stress on the heart

  • The adrenal gland on kidneys releases the stress hormone cortisol, epinephrine, also known as adrenaline and non epinephrine. These hormones travel through the body by blood stream and reach the heart.
  •  Adrenaline causes the heart to pump more blood and hence it beats faster which in turn leads to rise in blood pressure causing hypertension.
  • Cortisol can also cause the inner muscles of blood vessels to function abnormally.
  • Scientists today know that this is the first step in causing plaque build-up in inner walls of blood vessels which leads to many heart diseases and increased chances of stroke. 
  • Coronary artery diseases ruin the health of your heart when prolonged exposure to stress is experienced. 

Irritable bowel syndrome because of stress

  • When the brain senses stress, it activates the autonomic nervous system. Through nerve connections, the brain communicates stress to the intestinal nervous system. 
  • It makes one experience “the butterfly feeling in stomach”. This brain-gut connection can disrupt the natural rhythmic contractions that move food through your gut. This leads to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and heightens the sensitivity of gut to acid making one feel heartburn more often.
  • Stress can also change composition and functioning of your gut by brain-gut connection which may impact digestive and overall health.

How chronic stress affects your waistline?

  • Cortisol, a stress hormone, can increase your appetite and signals your body to replenish energy stores with energy dense foods and carbs, causing you to crave comfort foods.
  • High levels of cortisol in the body can also cause you to put on extra calories as visceral or deep belly fat.
  •  This type of fat, apart from increasing your waistline, is an organ that actively releases hormones and immune system chemicals called cytokines. These cytokines increase your risk of developing chronic diseases such as heart disease and insulin resistance
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How does the immune system respond to stress?

  • Stress hormones released by kidneys affect immune cells in a variety of ways.
  • In initial stages, immune cells try to fight invading foreigners but chronic stress dampens the functioning of some immune cells and when this happens, it makes you more susceptible to infections and diseases and also slows down the rate of healing.

Stress as a cause of diabetes

  • When we take extra nutrients, our body stores those extra nutrients for later use, more like a backup. But under flight and fright response, initiated by stress, our body secretes stress hormones which convert the stored nutrients into usable form, for the body to use in the scenario of flight & fright response.
  • When the body doesn’t actually “flight or fright or fight”, the extra glucose can exacerbate metabolic conditions, this causes the risk of high blood sugar level or diabetes. Extra glucose can also increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases.
  • Too much blood sugar because of overuse of your stress response can prove detrimental for the body.

Other health problems caused by the stress

  • Having a stressful life can increase the chances of developing non communicable diseases (NCDs). Examples of such diseases include- heart diseases, obesity, osteoporosis.
  • Hair loss, 
  • Acne,
  • Headache, 
  • Muscle tension, 
  • Difficulty in focusing and lack of concentration,
  • Fatigue,
  • Irritability,
  • Prolonged stress can affect how quickly we age and begin to show signs of aging,
  • Nearly 2/3rd diseases are thought to be triggered by stress,
  • Part of our metabolism is impacted negatively with stress as well.  

Dale Carnegie states in his book, “How to stop worrying and start living” that worry can be the cause for toothache. To affirm this, he has put the statement made by Dr William I.L. McGonigle while addressing the American dental association which goes like, ‘unpleasant emotions such as those caused by worry, feat, nagging…. may upset the body’s calcium balanced and cause toothache’. Dale Carnegie further mentions that Dr McGonigle told about one of his patients who has always had a perfect set of teeth until he began to worry over his wife’s sudden illness. During the three weeks’ span, she was in hospital, he developed nine cavities-cavities brought on by worry.

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Reproductive abilities can be impeded by prolonged stress

WOMEN- 

  • In women, reproduction is a huge energy expense, be it in terms of ovulation or uterine development and this expense increases even more during the beginning of pregnancy period. These activities shut down in response to the active stressful situation- fight or flight response.
  • With chronic stress, hormones involved in pregnancy like LH and FSH or female hormones- oestrogen and progesterone can become chronically inhibited. This prevents nurturing of foetus during pregnancy or egg during ovulation. 

MEN-

  • In men, reduction of testosterone is seen when going through prolonged periods of stress.
  • Apart from this, the impact of acute stress in men is erectile dysfunction or impotency.  This happens due to clamping down of peripheral blood vessels by turning on a sympathetic nervous system which is induced as a response to stress. This reaction to stress is done in order to keep more blood to the core and that means less blood flow is towards appendages including penis. This is the scenario of psychological induced impotence.

Behavioural effects of stress-

  • One of the major impacts of stress is depression and the main symptom of depression is anhedonia, which is the inability to feel pleasure.  
  • Stress impacts your brain and causes you to lose grip over the situation and makes you perceive any situation as more stressful than what it actually is.
  • Anger is yet another behavioural and emotional effect of stress. You start to get worked up with little things.
  • Anxiety about every small detail becomes common in a person who is stressed.
  • Addiction- When a person tries to cope with stress, it has positive options as well as negative options. To talk about negative options, many go for alcohol abuse, tobacco addiction, use of drugs to overcome stress.
  • Frontal cortex of the brain associated with reasoning and planning is impacted when feeling stressed, so impaired judgement can increase chances of moving towards negative coping mechanisms of stress.
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Best ways of coping with stress-

  • Perceived control- Perceived control helps you to deal with stress. Take control back in the areas of life where possibility lies. Lure yourself to situations where control is possible.  
  • Social support- Emotional support from family, friends and close associates helps with the stress. Having strong connections with people and building bonds with people encourages positive outlook towards life. To have someone to lean on is a great stress relief activity. 
  • Keeping a journal or notebook- Keeping track of the stressful situations you face and how you respond to them also helps to cope up with the stress. In this journal you can pen down the ways to improve your response towards stress and come up with strategies to combat it.
  • Slow down- Relax and clear your mind. Prefer calculated reaction to any stressful situation.
  • Exercise- Getting moved helps you to release the stress in your body. It has proven to be a good medium of relieving stress.
  • Healthy diet- Take a healthy and balanced diet. When your body is better and in a healthy state, it will be able to handle the stress in an effective way.
  • Fun activities- Take time out of your schedule for some relaxing or fun activity. It can be anything you enjoy doing. Doing so, creates a happy aura in your system.
  • Quality sleep- The same old yet very crucial way to lead a stress-free life is the good quality sleep. It helps in repairing the mind and body. Lack of sleep leads to blur judgements and mood swings.
  • Try Yoga and meditation- Studies over the years have shown positive feedback of these activities on the quality of life.
  • Professional help- Seek help from a professional if everything else fails to help you in combating the stress in your life.

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