The quote “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” By William James caught our eye today. What a thought provoking concept. Reducing stress is a widespread concept often discussed in books, articles, social circles and physician appointments. But, why exactly is stress bad for you? We wanted to explore that today!
Let’s start with what stress is exactly. Stress happens when a very challenging situation causes mental or emotional tension. When this happens, the body thinks that it is under attack and starts to release hormones and chemicals to prepare the body to react. The body thinks this despite the fact that the challenging situation probably does not require you to fight for your life, it could have been a stressful day at work, encounter at the grocery store or, an argument with a loved one.
What exactly happens to the body when we are stressed?
When the body senses stress, it goes into a ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ response, releasing hormones that signal responses throughout the rest of your body. It perceives a threat for your life and focuses all its energy on preparing you to either ‘fight’ the threat or ‘flight’ – run away. This causes you to be in an increase state of arousal with an increased ability to focus and concentrate.
A sudden onset of stress causes the muscles to tense up. This is to protect you from pain or injury. The trouble is, if you are in a constant state of stress, your muscles will remain in a somewhat constant state of tension. This can cause tension headaches, as well as, pain in other parts of your body due to the chronic strain on your muscles. It may also increase your risk of injury to your muscles.
Stress can affect your breathing. It can make you breathe faster. For some people this is not a significant problem however, for those who are prone to panic attacks, breathing faster can trigger one.
Further, for those who have trouble breathing to begin with, like asthma or COPD, this could cause and attack.
With a sudden onset of stress like a deadline, or stopping quickly in traffic, the body releases hormones named epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol. These hormones make your heart beat faster and, constrict your blood vessels to redirect blood flow to your major organs. This raises your blood pressure. You will be relieved to know though, once the event is over, this response reverses and everything returns back to normal.
If you have chronic stress, the above mentioned state of an increased heart rate and hight blood pressure, remains for prolonged periods of time. Your heart has to work harder to deliver oxygen and nutrients to your body. This can have long term effects and can increase your risk of hypertension, heart attack and stroke.
When cortisol and epinephrine are released into the blood as mentioned above, this signals your liver to produce more glucose to increase your blood sugar levels. This happens so that you have the energy to respond to the stressing demands. This causes more of an issue for those who are prone to type 2 diabetes, they will have greater difficulty reabsorbing the glucose once the stressor is relieved and may suffer from high blood sugar.
Some people eat, drink alcohol, or smoke, more than usual when they are stressed. This can cause acid reflux and heart burn. As mentioned before, stress causes the blood flow to divert to certain organs, in the case of the stomach, there is a decrease in blood flow which can also cause you to feel nauseated and the increase acid cause stomach pain and ulcers. The blood is also diverted from your bowels meaning stress effects digestion. You can either experience diarrhea or constipation.
Although cortisol in some amounts is important to the male reproductive system, excess amounts of cortisol causes issues. Chronic stress can cause a decrease in testosterone levels as well as, sperm count and can cause erectile dysfunction.
Stress can affect your menstrual cycle. High levels of stress can cause irregularities in your period. This can also affect fertility.
Menopause can also be affected by stress. The hormones released due to stress can cause an increase in anxiety and mood swings that are already associated with menopause.
When the stress response takes place, it depresses our immune system. It uses all our energy stores to prepare to ward off danger leaving our body defenseless against infection or tissue damage. The hormone cortisol decreases our inflammatory response by a decrease in white blood cells and also a decrease in the cells that kill cancer. As you can deduce, a state of chronic stress can have major effects on our ability to fight and prevent disease.
More on stress and how to battle it in our next blog, stay tuned!