How Stress Affects Your Body

Written By Dr. Cedric Strong, MD

Dr. Strong is affiliated with several hospitals on Oahu and is the chief of medicine at Pali Momi Medical Center.

February 18, 2021

Stress symptoms affect your health, even though you are not aware of them. You may keep blaming your illness for the headache, or insomnia. The fact is that stress does decrease your productivity at work and affects your relationships. Stress is the prime cause in modern times to affect our health and well-being. Stress for a short duration is actually good as it increases alertness and keeps us focused, it is the long-term stress that creates havoc in our lives and damages our mental and physical health.

Stress releases hormones- adrenaline, corticosteroids and other chemicals in our body to activate our sympathetic nervous system. This enables our muscles to work better, the brain to be more alert and pumps up the heart rate. Although stress is good for short periods of time, continued stress – or generalized stress without a trigger – can lead to exhaustion. The constant release of stress hormones causes stomach problems and alters menstrual cycles in women.

Stomach problems

Digestion is governed by the enteric nervous system, in our abdomen which shuts down blood flow when we are stressed. This affects normal digestion as the stomach muscles get tensed and are irritated. The common symptoms like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), cramping, diarrhea and constipation are visible in the person.

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Pains and Cramps

The stress hormones cause muscle tension which is prolonged can result pain, tension headaches, discomfort, migraines and dizziness.

Effect on Cardiovascular system

Stress reactions pump up the heart rate and blood pressure, but they return to normal when the stress reaction is over. In the short term, this is normal and helps one protect ourselves. Habits such as smoking, overeating or alcohol abuse increases the risk of developing a heart disease. The same adrenaline which leads to ‘arousal’ of our nervous system, also increases the risk of obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes, if stress is a long-term condition.

Cardiovascular system

Intense feelings of stress or anxiety, triggers symptoms like angina or chest pain which is caused by reduced blood flow to the heart. This should not be taken lightly and is a warning sign you might be at risk of a heart attack or stroke due to stress.

Immune and Reproductive systems

Prolonged stress has negative effects on the immune system. The stress hormone cortisol can boost immunity in the short run by limiting inflammation, but over longer periods of time, excessive cortisol leads to lower immunity and reduces the white blood cells.

The reproductive system is also adversely affected by cortisol which controls the release of estrogen and progesterone in women. The menstrual cycle thus gets affected due to stress related hormone cortisol, and leads to irregular periods.

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Dealing with Stress

The symptoms of stress can be both physical and emotional. It is necessary for a person to recognize when they are stressed. Common behavioral changes feeling overwhelmed, irritable, poor concentration, and heightened activity should be understood as outcome of stress. The methods to deal with stress can be:

Relaxation

Calming breathing exercises, mindfulness and meditation helps to relax and beat stress.

Change your lifestyle

Physical exercise reduces stress dramatically. Regular exercise brings about a feeling of achievement and wellbeing. Jogging, stretching, yoga helps to reduce muscle tension.

Change your lifestyle

Cigarettes, and Alcohol consumption should be reduced to zero or minimized drastically. Take up a healthy diet regularly to ease your digestion.

Self-Control

Take matters into your own hands to reduce stress situations. This can be done by improving time management, setting achievable goals and making simple changes at work to bring peace around yourself. Keeping a sense of humor also helps.

Support network

Nothing keeps you stress-free like spending quality time with family and friends. A good support network of colleagues, friends and family can ease your work-related stress. A relaxing chat on the phone or over a coffee helps relieve stress.

Set challenges

Try to set personal goals for yourself. Setting aside time for hobbies, such as reading a book or listening to music and spending time on your wellbeing builds confidence and improves your ability to deal with stressful situations.

Seeking Professional help

Seeking Professional help

If self-help techniques fail to work, it is recommended to visit your doctor or counselor. Stress issues can be resolved with therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). A group therapy session or a stress management course is equally helpful.

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