When we hear the word “stress,” we often think about being overworked, tense, angry or in the midst of any number of negative situations. Technically, stress is simply the body’s response to changes in our environment—and it can be a good thing. The term for positive stress in our lives, eustress, is a short-term type of stress that can come with positive changes in our lives, like a job promotion, new baby or another positive life change. Distress is the term for negative stress, the type most people are more familiar with. Distress causes anxiety or concern and usually feels unpleasant, and can be either short-term or long-term.
When we have long-term distress over a long period of time, the natural physical response of our bodies to these negative stressors can have a lasting impact on not only our mental but our physical health. Stress feels and looks different to everyone, so recognizing the symptoms and its effects on our lives is essential
Different types of stress
Acute stress is the type of stress we have when we are in a dangerous situation. Consider the feeling you have walking across a dark parking lot and seeing a stranger approaching you in the distance. Your heart rate increases, your blood pressure increases and your brain becomes laser-focused. This is your body’s “flight or fight” response. The body prepares to either defend itself or run for safety as a number of hormones and chemicals flood the body preparing for this decision. This response is designed to protect you from danger, allowing you to act quickly in emergencies.
Chronic stress is constant, long-term and persists over a period of time. Our bodies are not meant to stay in a constant state of “flight or fight” decision-making, and therefore long-term effects of acute stress can turn into chronic stress, which research shows can lead to a multitude of health problems.
Long-term health effects of chronic stress
Even when stress is positive, it can cause our bodies to release adrenaline, which can help us accomplish things and enhance our mood. But chronic stress can affect our physical and mental health, affecting our quality of life and even exacerbating health problems. When stress starts to interfere with your daily life or your ability to live a normal life, chronic stress can cause wear and tear on your body.
Chronic stress can make existing health problems worse, cause disease because of changes in the body or because of bad habits developed to deal with stress (like smoking and drinking.)
Chronic stress can have an effect on many different systems of the body, including:
• The respiratory system. When we breathe, our breath supplies oxygen to our cells and removes waste from our body. Stress and strong emotions can make it difficult for us to breathe properly or in a regular pattern, making this process harder for our lungs. This may also exacerbate breathing problems for people who have pre-existing respiratory conditions like COPD.
• The cardiovascular system. The heart is a complicated muscle and works constantly to supply our bodies with blood. Stress hormones tell our hearts how much blood to pump in and out of their chambers at any given time—for example, when we face acute stress like when we’re in danger, our heart pumps faster to prepare us to defend ourselves. However, chronic stress or long-term stress of any kind can lead to a higher risk of hypertension (high blood pressure,) heart attack or stroke.
• The endocrine system. Our hormones are what keep our bodies in balance and functioning normally at all times. Our brains and bodies are connected, and when we face stress, our brain signals our thyroid and other glands to produce stress hormones that flood our bodies. Cortisol, the hormone that increases our energy, is useful when we have a stressful event to get through, but too much cortisol for too long can have an unbalancing effect on our bodies. This oversaturation of cortisol can lead to immune disorders, chronic fatigue, metabolic disorders like diabetes and even depression.
• The gastrointestinal system. Chronic stress may result in an increase in stomach acid production, which may lead to heartburn or acid reflux. Chronic heartburn and acid reflux can lead to serious esophageal issues and regular pain. Stress can also affect digestion and what nutrients are absorbed by the body—some essential nutrients may not even get absorbed by the digestive system before making their way to the bowels. Stress can make the protective intestinal barrier weak, and may allow bacteria to enter the body. This can lead to chronic bowel issues, especially in those individuals who are predisposed to such syndromes or already struggle with inflammatory bowel diseases.
• The reproductive systems. When chronic stress affects the systems of our bodies, one of the most unexpected systems it can change is the reproductive system in both men and women. In men, chronic stress can affect testosterone production, sperm maturation and production, and can lead to increased chance of infection. In women, chronic stress can lead to amenorrhea (the absence of monthly periods), irregular ovulation, more painful periods and complicated pregnancies. Chronic stress can also complicate diseases of the reproductive system, like PCOS or endometriosis.
How to combat the negative effects of stress
While we can’t eliminate all the stress from our lives, there are steps we can take to mitigate the amount of stress we feel, and therefore set ourselves up with better coping mechanisms:
• Maintain a healthy support network
• Exercise regularly
• Get an adequate amount of sleep each night
• Identify what is causing the stress and address the root issues
• Get help with overwhelming issues. Consult with a psychologist or psychiatrist
Disclaimer: The contents of this article, including text and images, are for informational purposes only and do not constitute a medical service. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health professional for medical advice, diagnosis, and treatment.