Whenever you start feeling “off” or not like your usual self, it can be maddening to figure out the root of the problem. Is it a viral infection? Is it a bug going around the community? Is it poor sleeping habits? Am I just getting old? These are some of the common issues that may ruminate in your mind.
Sometimes, none of those questions apply. Instead, stress is the culprit. Yes, the same stress you deal with when completing daily tasks can also affect your body in ways you never realized. We’ll highlight some common areas that stress can directly or indirectly impact, as well as how stress can affect your immune system.
Stress happens every day, regardless of your state of mind. Without you even knowing it, your brain is constantly shuffling through thoughts, feelings and interactions. On average, those thoughts and feelings will lead to at least 45 daily negative stress reactions.
When you’re stressed, these emotions activate fight-or-flight reactions such as fear or worry. Your adrenal glands then release hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, as a protective mechanism to deal with whatever the perceived threat is. The result is a spike in heart rate, blood pressure and the production of glucose in your bloodstream.
These reactions aren’t always negative. It can help alert you of certain situations that need attention. For example, when you slam on the brakes to avoid an accident in front of you before you can even recognize it. That’s the fight-or-flight reaction coming into play.
Once your body processes the stressor or threat, the hormones return to normal levels.
Effects of stress on your body
The tell-tale signs of stress tend to be sweaty palms, a rapid increase in heart rate and a noticeable increase in alertness. Beyond that, stress also affects several other body parts and bodily functions.
Aches and pains
Have you ever been stressed out and heard someone tell you to loosen up? Well, in this case, the meaning is literal. Stress causes your muscles to tighten up to protect you from injury. You’ll often feel this tightness in your back, head and neck. This is why you may experience persistent headaches from stress.
Stress can impact your breathing by speeding up respiratory function to cause shortness of breath or hyperventilation. If you have issues with asthma, stress may increase your risk of asthma attacks. This also explains why panic attacks often cause respiratory problems since the stress forces your lungs into overdrive.
When under stress, your brain produces chemical messengers that instruct your blood vessels to pump more blood to vital organs. Over time, physical stress on your blood vessels can catch up to you. Chronic stress can put you more at risk for hypertension, stroke or heart attack.
Pigment loss in hair
At some point growing up, you may have heard your parents say your behavior was stressful enough to make their hair turn gray. Turns out they were on to something. When stress hits, nerves in your hair follicles release hormones that force pigment cells from the hair. Eventually, your hair turns grays since there are no pigment cells left to give the hair its natural color.
Going along with the idea that your entire body is on alert during stressful situations, it’s no surprise that your senses, such as smell and vision, tend to improve. Stress and anxiety can actually heighten your connection with your olfactory nerve, a cranial nerve that communicates to your brain what you’re smelling.
Diet and appetite
That upset stomach you feel may not be from the lunch you ate. Stress can cause several stomach issues, such as nausea and bloating. In more severe cases, vomiting may occur. Stress can also disrupt your gut bacteria, which explains the butterfly feeling you get when you’re nervous. An upset stomach tends to cause disinterest in food, which affects your diet and appetite. Conversely, there’s a correlation between stress and mood, and a depressed mood could result in poor food choices in an attempt to make yourself feel better.
It’s no coincidence that stress or anxiety can make you go to the bathroom more. During stressful situations, the speed at which your digestive tract processes food and waste can increase and lead to diarrhea. Stress hormones may also release inflammatory markers that cause your bowels to contract, leading to constipation. If you find yourself urinating more, that means the stress you encounter has your urinary tract on high alert.
Sexual desire and intimacy
In men, stress can disrupt testosterone production, thus lowering your sexual desire. Even if your desire is present, erectile dysfunction may become an issue. Blood flow to your penis causes an erection, and stress can disrupt that process. When stress becomes chronic, it may also impact reproductive health, including sperm in men. In women, stress can impact your ability to both conceive and develop a child. Stress during pregnancy can have negative impacts on offspring.
More prone to illnesses
The body is so intent on reacting to stress that it can leave your immune system prone to illness. In other words, it can get too depleted and struggle to defend against viral or bacterial infections. The cortisol produced during stress reactions can decrease your lymphocytes, important white blood cells your immune system uses to fend off foreign invaders.
Ways to manage stress
The easiest way to manage stress is to immerse yourself in activities that reduce anxiety-provoking thoughts and feelings.
For starters, incorporate regular exercise into your weekly routine. This can be as simple as taking a stroll around your neighborhood. Disconnecting from the world — and your smartphone — can do wonders for your state of mind.
Yoga or meditation are also an ideal way to both relax and work up a sweat. Yoga teaches you to control your breathing, which in turn can help you power through stressful situations when they arise.
Focus on activities and hobbies you enjoy. Read a book at night if you’re into novels. Listen to your favorite artist while you cook if you’re a fan of music. Play with your dog if animals help soothe your mood. Everyone has their own way of resetting their emotions. Find what works best for you.
You can also add positive affirmations, or positive self-talk, to your routine. Take a piece of paper and write down personal statements you can think about or say aloud several times a day. As an example, you may say “Today will be a good day. I will focus on the things I can control and won’t stress about the things I can’t control.”
Controlling what you can control applies most to these next few tips. Establish a regular sleep schedule to stay rested, and avoid smoking and excessive alcohol intake. Fuel your body with fruits, vegetables and healthy proteins that contain beneficial vitamins and minerals. Your body acts much like a car. It requires maintenance and the right products to run efficiently.
When to get help for stress
Stress is a normal part of dealing with what everyday life throws at you. But, stress can complicate things when it becomes chronic. As we outlined above, repeated stress can lead to many future health problems.
If you feel like you’re losing control or have issues getting through the day and typical tasks, contact your primary care physician to discuss ways to reduce your stress. Your doctor may refer you to a mental health provider to provide further assistance. The INTEGRIS Health Mental Health Clinic can help you navigate your troubles with treatment options, free anonymous online screenings and other resources.
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