how stress affects the body

You Asked: What is stress doing to my body?

A little stress is good for you, but too much can take years off your life
April 6, 2016

Stress is often referred to as the ‘health epidemic of the 21st century’—the culprit behind frazzled and exhausted populations worldwide. With at least 70 percent of people in the United States experiencing the physical and psychological effects of stress, it’s become somewhat of a personal pathogen. In fact, repeated bouts of stress may even take years off your life. A Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Nursing expert explains the damaging side-effects of the chronically over-stressed.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a little stress is actually good for you. “Little bursts of stress (acute stress) during working hours or during your day can help you to focus more and perform better,” said Raquel Reynolds, M.S.N., RN, PHCNS-BC, PhD(c) a clinical assistant professor in the Texas A&M College of Nursing, who studies workplace stress. “When the stress is repeated over and over again, and translates to chronic stress, is when detrimental health effects happen.”

Forty-eight percent of people report stress has a negative impact on both their personal and professional life—with 40 percent of workers suffering on the job. Individual factors like stress from your personal or social life play in, but, according to Reynolds, situational stressors (workplace environment) are far and above the major reason so many people’s bodies are over-worked and pushed to their limit.

“Work conditions, in general, drive chronic stress,” she said. “The typical American spends 8.8 hours a day at work. That’s a lot of time. Maintaining a good work-life balance is important. When that doesn’t happen, it can take a toll on your body, both physically and emotionally.”

When your heart is strung-out on stress, the burden on the cardiovascular system can be immense. “Elevated blood pressure and hypertension are both symptoms of chronic stress,” Reynolds said. “It will also greatly affect your blood pressure variability. Blood pressure fluctuates up or down depending on your activity level—when you’re exposed to chronic stress that variability flattens out.”

Did you know inflamed tempers can cause inflammation in the body? Reynolds said inflammation of the arteries and veins is a very real problem, since so many hormones are dumped into the bloodstream during periods of chronic stress. “This may cause plaque buildup which can eventually lead to heart attack and stroke,” she said.

Inability to sleep is another symptom of chronic stress, and at least 48 percent of the population struggles with stress-induced insomnia. People who are over-stressed have trouble falling asleep and don’t sleep as deeply,” Reynolds said. This means the body is unable to adequately recover and receive the rest it needs. When this happens, a person is not as aware and alert which makes you more accident-prone.”

The combination of sleep deprivation and stress also influences the type of foods we reach for when we’re mentally and physically tapped out. According to Reynolds, your brain naturally craves fatty, high-sugar and high-starch foods when it’s weary. “This goes hand-in-hand with sleep deprivation,” she said. “When you don’t sleep enough the mechanisms in your brain are altered and you will crave unhealthy foods. This drives your blood sugar up and can cause weight-gain and diabetes.”

Chronic stress is akin to a metaphorical illness, and much like a nasty cold or flu, it’s a tactical genius—declaring war on all fronts while overtaxing the immune system. “Our immune system exists to protect us from all kinds of attacks. The physical and psychological assaults of chronic stress rival when an illness invades the immune system,” Reynolds said. “It’s exactly the same as being overexposed to an illness. The immune system becomes worn out.”

Approximately 15 percent of people who experience severe or prolonged stress report a change in sex drive. This is mostly due to the body being in a constant state of “fight or flight.” As adrenaline hormones are unloaded into the bloodstream, they can interfere with sexual response which results in low or diminished libido.

Studies have shown that exposure to even mild periods of stress and anxiety can lower your life expectancy. The larger the burden of psychological stress, the more likely a person is to die of heart disease, cancer or even external causes like accidents and injuries. Reynolds said the key to living a long, happy and healthy life is to pursue tactics to combat stress—and that doesn’t include a Netflix binge on the couch.

She explained the best way to alleviate stress is to learn positive coping mechanisms like exercising, talking with friends and meditation. [pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“Don’t go home and sit on the couch, go drinking, or smoke after having a stressful day,” she said. “Think of stress as revving your engines all day long. Our natural inclination is to lay down and chill out, but that’s not a healthy outlet. Your body has built excess energy all day even if you don’t feel it. You need to refocus, dissipate and expend that energy—not just shut it down.”[/pullquote]

— Lauren Thompson

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