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What Stress REALLY Does To Your Body

February 28, 2017

These days, it seems like the stock response to “How are you?” is to say, “Busy. So busy!” Whether it’s a business associate you’re meeting for the first time or an old friend you run into on the street, it seems like everybody is afflicted with the disease of busy-ness.

And it is a disease – this perpetual state of dis-ease means we’re never at ease and constantly stressed out. While many of us may secretly (or not-so-secretly) carry this busy-ness as a badge of honour, various studies have shown that too much stress can cause major damage to your health.

 

But First, What Is Stress?

Stress is your body’s natural response to any kind of perceived danger or threat. When you feel threatened, your nervous system releases a flood of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which pushes you to take action.

When contained within your comfort zone, stress can be useful. Low-level, short-term stressors — whether physical (such as vigorous exercise) or psychological (a looming deadline) — stimulate the production of neurotrophins (a type of brain chemical) and strengthen the connections between neurons in your brain, helping you stay focused on the task on-hand.

Stressful situations can also help you increase your reservoir of resilience, so the next time you’re faced with a similar situation, you’ll feel more in control and are less likely to break down.

However, being overly stressed can have adverse long-term effects on your mind and body.

 

How Stress Affects Your Mind

The constant presence of stress hormones in your body can lead to changes in your personality and temperament. Some of these changes include an increase in aggressive feelings and behaviour, decreased interest in appearance, obsessive/compulsive behaviour, problems in communication, and social withdrawal or isolation. Over time, this can spiral into depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses.

In fact, chronic stress has a more profound effect on your brain that goes beyond your mood or emotions. For example, too much cortisol can destroy or shrink the formation of neurons in a section of your brain known as the hippocampus. This is the part of your brain responsible for learning, memory, and emotional regulation. Chronic stress can also shrink your medial prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that controls decision-making and helps curb impulsive behaviour. Over time, these alterations to your brain can have significant ramifications on your ability to learn, remember, and make decisions. It also impacts the way you respond to stressful situations, which leads to a vicious circle of stress and a decline in your brain performance.

 

How Stress Affects Your Body

Apart from wreaking havoc on your mental and emotional wellbeing, stress also has plenty of negative effects on your body. The high demands stress places on your body takes a toll on your immune system, causing you to be more susceptible to colds and other infections.

Stress has also been linked to a multitude of illnesses such as cancer, lung disease, and liver cirrhosis. In addition, stress can physically damage your heart muscle. During stressful situations, stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are released into your blood stream, which increases your heart rate and constricts your blood vessels, forcing your heart to work harder and increasing your blood pressure.

On top of that, stressful situations often cause people to develop symptoms of bruxism. According to the The Bruxism Association in the UK, about 70 percent of bruxism occurs as a result of stress or anxiety. Bruxism, which is the medical term for grinding the teeth and clenching the jaw, can cause lasting damage to your jaw and wear your teeth thin.

For some, stress and anxiety are also contributing factors to a disorder known as trichotillomania, where people have an almost irresistible urge to pull out the hair from their own scalp.

 

Coping With Stress

woman drinking coffee with friend Now that you have a picture of the harmful effects stress can have on your health, it’s important to understand how you can deal with stress. While we can never entirely eradicate stressful situations in our lives, we can learn to cope with healthier coping mechanisms.

Some of the oft-cited methods of dealing with stress are to exercise regularly and find pockets of time to practice mindfulness. However, one less-known yet highly effective way of dealing with stress is to connect with a loved one. You don’t even need to talk about your problems when together. Simply spending quality time with someone who understands and supports you provides a deep sense of mental and emotional relief.