What Really Happens to Your Body When You Become Stressed?
The American Institute of Stress stated, “Stress is not a useful term for scientists because it is such a highly subjective phenomenon that it defies definition. And if you can’t define stress, how can you possibly measure it?” There are more than a half-dozen dictionary definitions for the word “stress”, and the one thing they have in common is the concept of tension and pressure. Tensile strength of steel is measured by pulling each end until it breaks. A situation can be tense if it is hostile or suspenseful. Tension headaches are attributed to mental or emotional strain.
Your body reacts to stress in many ways – physical, mental, and emotional – when you are faced with extraordinary demands. And you may be surprised to learn that there is good stress, too! Positive stress is called eustress, when it can be a motivator to achieve goals, or anticipation of a joyous event like a wedding. Negative stress, also called distress, occurs when good stress is no longer manageable and you feel you cannot cope with the pressure. This is when your body begins to display symptoms of stress.
The Physiological Effects of Stress on Your Immune System and Health
- Musculoskeletal System: During acute stress (sudden onset and short-term) your muscles tense up and then release tension when the stress eases. Chronic stress does not allow the body to recover and can lead to disorders such as migraine headaches, associated with chronic muscle tension in the neck and shoulders.
- Respiratory System: Stress can make you breathe harder and faster, and that hyperventilation could trigger a panic attack. Acute stress is especially dangerous for people who have respiratory disorders such as asthma and lung disorders, inhibiting oxygen intake and even causing asthma attacks.
- Endocrine System: In acute stress, your brain signals the pituitary gland and adrenal glands to produce “stress hormones” – adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol – that give your body energy for “fight or flight” by triggering the liver to release more blood sugar. This can be particularly harmful for people who have or are predisposed to Diabetes.
- Cardiovascular System: Acute stress causes the heart and blood vessels to work harder. Enabled by the stress hormones, your heart rate increases, the contractions of the heart muscle are stronger, and the blood vessels dilate, increasing your blood pressure. When the acute stress subsides, your body returns to its normal state. But chronic stress over a long period of time can increase risk for hypertension, heart attack or stroke.
- Reproductive System: Stress and the resulting stress hormones can interfere with normal functioning in males by reducing testosterone production and increasing vulnerability to infections. Stress in females can cause changes in menstrual cycles, and increases in the intensity of PMS and menopausal symptoms.
- Gastrointestinal System: Stress can lead to changes in diet which can cause heartburn and acid reflux. Your stomach may feel “nervous” or upset, with pain, nausea and vomiting. If stress is chronic you could develop ulcers.
Everyone experiences stress in their lives, and too many people wait until stress starts to impact their lives and then take remedial measures. Why not plan ahead and create a Stress Defense Plan?
Here are some suggestions for your Stress Defense Plan:
- Practice letting go – Choose not to become angry or upset, especially over things you cannot control.
- Learn breathing exercises and relaxation techniques.
- Develop effective time management strategies.
- Stay well hydrated.
- Follow a balanced nutrition plan and consider vitamin and mineral supplements to replace nutrients lost to stress, and to promote relaxation.
It seems rather easy for someone to advise that we need to “stress less” in order to get healthy, and stay healthy. But the first step is recognizing that stress in all negative forms, can have a noticeable impact on wellness in both the short and long term. Stress is less a singular issue of emotional management, and more an important and frequently trivialized health threat that everyone should be aware of. What can you do today, to minimize your stress, unplug and enjoy activities that make you feel calm and rested, for better health? Make time to “take it slow”, meditate, enjoy stretching and exercise or relaxing creative activities to recharge.