If a person experiences stress on a regular basis, they might notice symptoms such as irregular eating patterns, difficulty sleeping, or problems with their heart and immune system.
Stress is a natural part of the body’s existence. However, stress is meant to be an occasional emotion, not a constant one.
This article will look at the effects that stress can have on the body, as well as some things a person can do to lower their stress levels.
Stress can trigger a variety of diseases and conditions.
When a person experiences stress, the body increases its production of steroid hormones called glucocorticoids. These include cortisol, which is also known as the “stress hormone.”
Although these hormones typically help regulate the immune system and help reduce inflammation, chronic stress can cause a miscommunication between the immune system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. This is the interaction between the adrenal glands, the pituitary gland, and the hypothalamus.
As a result, there is a higher chance of developing mental and physical conditions, including:
Stress hormones can depress the immune system by lowering the activity of cells that respond to viruses and bacteria or other inflammatory conditions.
The following sections will discuss the physical effects of stress in more detail.
Stress can also cause an increase in a person’s heart rate and increase the oxygen demand.
Health professionals have also identified a unique stress-related condition that affects the heart, called Takutsobo cardiomyopathy. This is also known as “stress cardiomyopathy,” or “broken heart syndrome.”
It is a temporary condition that can cause symptoms similar to those of a heart attack, such as chest pain. However, the symptoms are due to stress causing functional problems within the heart.
In Takutsobo cardiomyopathy, a part of the heart becomes enlarged temporarily and has difficulty pumping. However, the rest of the heart tries to function normally.
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), this can lead to severe short-term muscle failure or even shock. However, the condition is treatable. Most people make a full recovery within a matter of days or weeks.
In rare cases, however, it can lead to death.
Stress can affect a person’s appetite and the typical functioning of their gastrointestinal tract.
For example, it can affect:
- intestinal permeability
- stomach acid secretion
- gastrointestinal inflammation
- the absorption process
The sections below will discuss some specific gastrointestinal effects of stress in more detail.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), stress can alter how quickly food moves through the body, and as a result, it can give rise to diarrhea or constipation. It can also affect a person’s digestion and the body’s absorption of nutrients.
Stress can adversely affect intestinal movement, sensitivity, and absorption, which can lead to IBS symptoms.
For these reasons, doctors may manage IBS with medications designed to relieve stress, such as antidepressants.
It can also affect how a person swallows. In turn, this can increase the amount of air a person swallows, causing them to burp more and potentially experience bloating.
If a person is experiencing chronic stress, nausea and vomiting might occur.
Also, it is important to note that although stress does not directly cause stomach ulcers, it can cause them to be more uncomfortable.
Stress may adversely affect stomach acid production and other upper gastrointestinal tract functions.
Stress can irritate or worsen certain respiratory conditions, such as asthma and allergy symptoms, by leading to or worsening shortness of breath and wheezing. This is because stress can trigger an inflammatory response, which gives rise to tightening airways.
If a person does not have a respiratory condition, they are not typically in any severe danger. However, for those with respiratory difficulties such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, this can lead to panic attacks and more significant respiratory difficulty.
When a person is stressed, their muscles can become tense. If a person is constantly stressed, their muscles do not get a chance to relax. This can cause muscular pain.
There also appears to be a significant correlation between stress and temporomandibular dysfunction (TMD). In fact, according to a 2016 study of college students in Brazil, the prevalence of TMD was 71.9%.
Researchers have also linked increased stress with greater pain experiences. For example, people with high stress report having greater incidences of lower back pain than those without, according to an article in the journal JAMA.
Frequent stress can lead to a variety of skin-related conditions.
According to a 2018 study focusing on medical students, those who were experiencing stress reported incidences of:
Stress can also affect the reproductive system. The following sections will discuss how it affects each sex.
Stress can affect females in a variety of ways. For example, it can influence:
- Sexual desire: Stress, depression, and fatigue can cause females to experience a lower libido.
- Reproduction: Stress can lead to flare-ups of the herpes simplex virus and polycystic ovary syndrome. It can also exacerbate premenstrual symptoms and trigger irregular menstrual cycles.
- Menopause: Stress can make the physical effects of menopause worse.
- Fertility: Stress can affect a female’s ability to conceive.
In males, stress can influence:
- Sexual desire: According to the APA, stress can affect testosterone production, which can reduce libido. This, in turn, can lead to erectile dysfunction.
- Reproduction: Stress can impact the production of sperm.
- Infections: Because stress can also affect the immune system, infections can be more likely and may affect the prostate gland, testes, and urethra.
Stress can also have a significant impact on a person’s mental well-being. According to a 2017 article, a person who has experienced early-life stress may develop major depression, bipolar disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder.
It can also affect a person’s memory and cognitive learning ability.
According to a 2017 review, mild stress can help a person’s cognitive function. However, extreme stress can negatively affect memory and judgment.
A person can usually treat stress at home. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, some options include:
- Getting regular physical activity: Exercising for at least 30 minutes per day most days of the week may help relieve stress. Some examples of beneficial exercises include walking, cycling, and dancing.
- Getting enough sleep: Sleeping well at night can help a person feel refreshed and less stressed. If a person has difficulty sleeping well, they may wish to avoid consuming caffeine or alcohol, avoid smoking in the evenings, sleep in a cool room, and refrain from using electronic devices during the hour before bed.
- Trying alternative medicine techniques: Using yoga, acupuncture, or massage may help reduce a person’s stress levels.
- Setting priorities. If a person shifts their mindset from focusing on what they have to do to what they have accomplished, they may find that their stress levels decrease.
- Connecting with others. Talking to loved ones can help relieve stress and help a person feel connected. A person should not be afraid to seek help from others if they find themselves with a high rate of stress.
Sometimes, however, a person may need to seek professional medical help to learn about some different techniques to manage their stress.
If a person tries the stress-relieving techniques above but continues to experience symptoms, they may wish to speak to a doctor.
The doctor may refer them to a therapist, recommend additional lifestyle changes, or prescribe medications to help reduce their stress or anxiety levels.
Sometimes, stress can lead a person to thoughts of self-harm or suicide. If this is the case, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or seek emergency medical attention.
Stress can have a significant effect on a person’s body, leading to increases in illness and pain.
Some stress-relieving techniques can help reduce these, though some people may find that professional medical help can teach them how to better manage their stress.
Seeking help when necessary can improve a person’s short- and long-term overall health.