Stress: We’re all too familiar with it. Unless you’re doing yoga full-time on a tropical island, chances are, you suffer periods of chronic stress. Stress is the plague of modern life. And for most of us, it’s chronic stress, meaning we suffer its effects over the long term — which takes a major toll on health. Living an altogether stress-free life may not be realistic in this day and age, but it can be a state we aspire to, in order to decrease our risk of disease and enjoy our lives to the fullest.
In the short-term, stress is natural and normal. It’s a physical response — as well as a mental one — to all sorts of different life experiences. From getting stuck in a traffic jam, to losing a loved one, life situations that trigger stress run the gamut. There’s no need to beat yourself up if you know you’re going through a stressful period. But when stress becomes a way of life, it’s essential to take inventory, because chronic stress impacts your health on every level — mind, body, and spirit.
If you’re not sure whether you’re suffering from long-term stress and its ill effects, here are some of its most common symptoms:
- Chronic anxiety
- Chronic irritability
- Frequent headaches
- Chronic depression
- Sleep issues, such as insomnia
There are other symptoms as well, and some might not be quite as obvious.
Why does stress have so many widespread effects? Because chronic stress does damage to every underlying system in the body. It affects respiration, digestion, and sexuality. It also takes a toll on the cardiovascular system, immune system, muscular system, endocrine system, and central nervous system.
Here’s what happens to each system of the body when stress has taken its grip on you:
Chronic stress and the reproductive system
It probably won’t come as a surprise that chronic stress lowers libido. What’s more, it can also impact fertility — and not in a good way — if you want to have a child. When your body’s been in a constant state of stress for too long, the entire reproduction system suffers. For men, testosterone decreases, causing erectile dysfunction and even impotence. Sperm count lowers, too. For women, chronic stress disrupts the menstrual cycle. Periods might become irregular or even non-existent. During the perimenopausal years, symptoms often become greater under the pressures of long-term stress.
Stress on the immune system
Ever notice how you get sick easier when you’re exhausted from stress? This is so often the case because your immune system craves balance, and when stress has tipped its scales, immunity weakens. When you experience chronic stress, viral illnesses like cold and flu are more prevalent, as are viral infections. If you’re in the throes of recovery from an injury or other illness, your body will take longer to heal.
Stress and the musculoskeletal system
It’s common for muscles to tense up in response to acute stress. After awhile, the stress response loses its grip, and the muscles relax. But under a state of chronic stress, your muscles may never get the chances to relax. This is when stress becomes a problem for the musculoskeletal system. This can trigger other reactions throughout the body, including headaches or migraines.
Chronic stress and digestion
Your digestive system needs the body to be relaxed when it does its work. When it’s not relaxed, digestion becomes compromised. Have you ever been totally stressed out and then experienced nausea, stomach ache, vomiting, diarrhea, or constipation? These are all symptoms of digestive stress. What’s more, long-term stress may even increase your risk of type 2 diabetes, because stress causes your liver to produce more glucose and release it into the bloodstream to increase energy. Over time, this excessive glucose production often results in diabetes.
Stress and the cardiovascular system
When you’re under constant stress, your heart beats faster, blood vessels constrict, and even blood pressure increases. These responses are okay for the short term, but if this is happening for years and years on end, expect cardiovascular problems to arise. These might include heart attack, heart disease, or even stroke.
Stress and the respiratory system
You’ve probably experienced shortness of breath or rapid breathing during super-stressful episodes. And if you have asthma, it often gets worse under chronic stress. In fact, any and every respiratory issue magnifies under major stress.
Stress and the central nervous and endocrine systems
When your body is in a stress response, adrenaline and cortisol flood the bloodstream. These are the two most infamous stress hormones. They’re released by the hypothalamus, which helps connect the endocrine system to your nervous system. Under acute stress, the hypothalamus will eventually tell those stress hormones to knock it off. But under chronic stress, it doesn’t do its job, and the stress response never loosens its grip over the central nervous and endocrine systems. This contributes to a long-term drain on the body.
Stress and brain function
Do you know that chronic stress kills brain cells? It’s true! Stress takes a serious toll on brain function. As it kills those brain cells, memory, concentration, and focus become compromised. It’s even believed that chronic stress increases your risk of developing Alzheimer’s and dementia. There’s a cascade of degeneration that takes place in the brain when you’re under stress day in and day out.
What to do about chronic stress
As you can see, the ill effects of chronic stress on your body and mind are plentiful. It’s essential to find healthy ways to decrease stress as often as possible — to reverse chronic stress, and return your body to a place of centeredness.
Be sure to eat a diet that’s nutrient-dense, and free of refined sugars. Eliminate processed foods and keep alcohol to a minimum.
Be sure to exercise daily, spend time in nature, and appreciate the little things in life. Aromatherapy helps, as do certain herbs, and even journaling.
Take the time to find what works for you. Sometimes life is just plain stressful. There’s no need to make matters worse by putting pressure on yourself to alleviate stress. With a little time and effort, you’ll learn how to manage stress in a way that’s healthy, and even fun!
Need help with your health and weight-loss goals? At Elite Physique, we believe an equal balance of nutrition, activity, rest, and confidence is the foundation for achieving a healthier you. Our personalized weight-loss program is designed to address the underlying factors that often make weight loss difficult, including chronic stress. Contact us today for your free consultation!