What Extreme Stress Does To Your Body
Our physical and mental health are inextricably linked, so if you've ever felt physically ill during times of extreme stress, you're far from the only one. Although some people are more vulnerable to the physical side effects of stress than others, the bottom line is that extreme stress directly affects our bodies in negative ways. In fact, the American Institute of Stress has complied a whopping 50 potential mental and physical problems that are often associated with stress. Although no one person experiences all these symptoms, it's still clear that living a stressful lifestyle means we're more likely to experience depression, insomnia, weakened immune systems, and difficulty concentrating.
And we don't just feel the side effects of stress on a daily basis — an extremely stressful lifestyle puts us at greater risk for developing serious illnesses such as autoimmune diseases, certain types of cancer, and neurological disorders. Stress is unavoidable in our lives; we're a busy generation, balancing jobs, social engagements, volunteer work, and other obligations. And on top of all that, many of us have a hard time saying "no," even when we know something will make us even more stressed out. But before we put ourselves in situations that will make us more stressed than necessary, we should consider the toll it will take on us — not just on our minds, but on our bodies, as well.
1. Frequent Colds & Infections
The bottom line is that stress weakens our immune systems and makes us far more likely to catch every cold, flu, and virus that circles around the office or our group of friends. And, because our immune systems are weaker than those who aren't under intense stress, it takes us longer to recover from the common cold. Additionally, it's common to develop herpes sores in the mouth when you're extremely stressed.
2. Sleep Disturbances
When you're ultra stressed out, it's nearly impossible to turn off the part of your brain that's constantly racing and worrying about what the next day, week, or month has in store. Naturally, this makes it really hard to fall asleep — and, when you do fall asleep, it's common to have nightmares or disturbing dreams (they're usually related to what we're stressed about — for example, if you're incredibly stressed out by a job situation, it's common to have nightmares about making a mistake and the repercussions you imagine you'll face). It's also common to have trouble staying asleep — as the Sleep Foundation notes, "Stress causes hyperarousal, which can upset the balance between sleep and wakefulness."
3. Changes In Weight
Although stress can certainly trigger an eating disorder in a vulnerable individual, it can also cause weight fluctuations amongst people who aren't thinking about their diet at all. For some of us, stress makes us nauseous to the point where we can't eat, and we even forget to eat because we don't feel hunger. Others simply don't have the time or energy to focus on healthy, balanced meals like they used to and they reach for unhealthy foods because cooking is one less thing to worry about when you're exhausted and pushed to the limit on a daily basis.
4. Weakness & Fatigue
Even if you do dodge the bullet of insomnia, stress can still be downright exhausting. You may find yourself feeling fatigued even if you did get eight hours of sleep. It's important to note that stressed out people may technically be "asleep" for eight hours, but they tend to not be in a deep sleep that leaves them feeling refreshed and rested once they wake up. Because stress takes such a toll on your body (for the reasons mentioned above and many more), it's also common to feel weak and struggle to complete physical tasks that you didn't have to think twice about in the past.
5. Stomach Problems
Extreme stress can cause myriad stomach problems, including heartburn, stomach pain, nausea, constipation, and diarrhea. In fact, Irritable Bowel Syndrome is directly related to mental health, and is known to flair up during times of stress or mental distress. There's no easy, over-the-counter cure for these stomach issues — so they'll generally only subside when your lifestyle becomes less stressful.
6. Mental Health Problems & Personality Changes
Unsurprisingly, individuals who are under extreme stress for an extended period of time are more likely to develop depression, anxiety disorders, and panic attacks. It's also common to experience extreme mood swings and become easily frustrated, impatient, and irritable. "The exhaustion combined with the stress can result in isolating yourself and avoiding social situations. Additionally, individuals who are under extreme stress are more likely to turn to alcohol, drugs, and nicotine in an effort to temporarily take the edge off — and this can quickly turn into an addiction if the extreme stress continues.
The Bottom Line
Life is always going to be stressful — because, well, stress is a part of life. But, if any of these symptoms sound familiar, it's a good time to step back, reassess your lifestyle, and consider what positive changes you can make. Would a different work atmosphere ease your stress? Do you consistently take on way more commitments than you need to because you feel like it's the right thing to do? (Volunteering is amazing, but you don't need to join five causes — it's often best to focus on one and give it your all.) We often think that stress is no big deal, because everyone's stressed and it's just something we need to deal with. But unnecessary stress is definitely not worth compromising your health over.
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