It's now a pretty well-established scientific fact that stress is bad for us — and especially bad for our bodies. Chronic stress — the kind of repeated, constant stress that places you in a holding pattern of panic and pressure — is known to be particularly hard on our bodies. But even the minute stressors of a normal day (traffic, work, an argument with a friend) have lasting effects on your physical self. We tend to see stress and other emotions as existing "all in our heads," but the realities are very, very different: if anything, current research suggests stress' lasting impact on our bodies is much more severe than its impact on our minds.
So what happens when stress strikes? Essentially, your body goes "AAUGH" and starts to prepare for the apocalypse (yes, this is the formal scientific description). Yes, even if the stress is minor. The nine stress-induced health conditions below aren't permanent or irreversible, for the most part — but when you experience them over and over again, or for an extended time when you're super stressed (hello, finals time), the impact can add up.
So if you're finding that your daily life stress levels are out of control, think about practicing mindfulness and meditation or another stress reduction technique. Because these nine physical effects of stress are no joke.
1. Your Endocrine System Goes Into Overdrive
When we're stressed, we experience a kind of panic, which means that the systems of the body designed to help out in genuinely panic-inducing situations — like being mugged, or escaping a fire — go to work. One of these is the endocrine system — the body's method of shuttling hormones and signals around the body, including the whole "fight or flight" impulse — which goes into overdrive. The problem is that stress sometimes doesn't have a viable "end", so the endocrine system doesn't know when to stop going into overdrive. In consequence, your hormones are likely to go a bit haywire – and it might exacerbate any underlying hormonal conditions you've got lying around.
2. Your Heart Works Too Hard
Stress is a heart-pounding experience. Literally. It goes back to the fight-or-flight response encoded in human bodies, created to help us deal with seriously dangerous situations; the heart starts to pump hard to make sure all your organs have enough oxygen to deal with the unexpected — like, say, running away from a lion (more of a problem for our ancient ancestors than for us, of course).
But that hard work doesn't come without risks. Stress has been shown to increase the risk of heart disease because of rises in blood pressure — but the fact that you probably pay less attention to your health when you're stressed out of your mind definitely can't help, either.
3. You're More Likely To Experience Cravings For Unhealthy Foods
Remember the endocrine system and its hormonal reaction to stress? In addition to the famous adrenaline, another hormone called cortisol is released in stressful situations — and it's been linked to a higher level of cravings for sweet and sugary foods. It's likely that cortisol influences the parts of the brain that control how much we want to eat, which may make our brains demand sweets, because they release pleasurable brain chemicals that help us relieve tension — so it's very likely that stressful events will have you suddenly wanting a Kit-Kat (or 20).
4. You're More Likely To Develop Diabetes
Stressful situations prompt your body to boost the levels of glucose in your blood — which is worrying on its own. Add in the fact that cortisol makes it harder for your body to burn fat — which can lead to raised cholesterol and insulin levels — and things get even rougher. Our bodies adapted to preserve fat under stress because in ancient times, stress often meant there was a famine or other situation where food was scarce — an adaptation that was probably very helpful then, but can cause us a lot of trouble now.
5. Your Muscles Tense
Yes, you probably did get that headache because you find your coworker stressfully annoying. Muscle tension is one of the most common signs of stress: it's part of the body's classic emergency response, in which muscles tense in anticipation, as your body waits for you to flee a dangerous situation or fight off a threat.
Unfortunately, a lot of that tension means the muscles start to ache like hell. Anybody who's ever had a tension headache or jaw ache will get this one.
6. Your Periods May Become Irregular (Or Disappear)
Stress influences many parts of your body that seem like they have no business being interrupted by stress — like, why should the fact that your job is difficult impact your menstrual cycle?! But it does. Stress interferes with the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that regulates hormones; and a malfunctioning hypothalamus can dampen the pituitary gland, disrupting your ordinary hormonal flow. You may find that this males your periods suddenly start to jump all over the shop, or stop completely for a while.
7. Your Immune System Is In Overdrive
Over the short term, this makes absolute sense. In a stressful situation, your immune system starts to go into overdrive, preparing to help your body in case something truly awful happens to it. Basically, your body is anticipating having to help you recover from a wound gained in battle, or something similar.
But when our immune systems stay switched on High Alert for too long, our bodies going begin to suffer. The immune system is a delicately balanced thing, and having it in overdrive may actually make you more susceptible to certain illnesses. The short-term enhancement turns into long-term vulnerability pretty quickly.
8. You're More At Risk Of Irritable Bowel Disease
This is one of the weirder parts of stress's ongoing affects on the body: it jumbles up your digestive system, which can lead to higher risk of developing digestive conditions like gastric ulcers or irritable bowel disease. Why? It looks like the over-active immune response of the stressed body may be behind the increased IBD risk: something about the body's hormonal responses to stress seems to make us more susceptible to developing the condition.
9. You're More Likely To Forget Things
I'm not talking about a Memento-level memory loss here — but there does seem to be a pretty profound link between memory loss in the stressed and our old friend cortisol. If our bodies are dealing with a high dose of cortisol regularly, it seems to mean that we lose some of the synapses in our prefrontal cortex. (This is the bit of our brains partially responsible for keeping our short-term memories straight.) It's a longer-term problem, though: the study that did the most to establish the link estimated that stress-related memory loss probably kicks in at about age 65.
We all get a little stressed out in our lives, so this list isn't meant to scare you. But if you know that you have to deal with a lot of stress on the regular, look into ways to calm down or cope — you'll feel better in the moment and in the long term, too.
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