How Does Stress Affect Your Body?


We often hear phrases like “I’m so stressed out!” What exactly are people talking about when they are sharing stories about stress? The simple way to understand stress is basically to recognize that anything that changes or upsets your body’s delicate balance and causes your body to react in a negative way is stress. Whether it’ s an emotional reaction or a physical response, a stressful event upsets your body’s balance and causes your body to produce substances called hormones, which mobilize our “fight or flight” system.  When you experience a stressful event, your body will release a series of hormones such as epinephrine or adrenaline, norepinephrine and the all too commonly talked about hormone called cortisol.  The effects of these hormones in the short term are to protect us, so that when we  experience something harmful or dangerous,  we can either fight off the danger or flee from the danger. In other words, this is the “fight or flight” response. The problem in the long run is that if your body is exposed to these powerful hormones for too long, some very serious effects can occur. The short term effects of adrenaline or epinephrine are to raise your blood pressure by constricting your blood vessels, routing  blood away from your internal organs and more towards your muscles in case you need to fight or flee, mobilize your stores of blood sugar in order to provide fuel for your body and to raise your heart rate. The long term effects of stress on your body can include poor sleep, weight gain, changes in metabolism which elevate your blood sugar and cholesterol, and blood pressure elevation, all of which can ultimately lead to strokes and heart attacks, and a slew of other health problems.


What types of things are considered stressful?

Things that are physically stressful, such as being ill, or being exposed to extreme elements or temperatures such as heat or cold can cause the release of these powerful hormones in order to help your body cope and restore balance to your body’s systems. Emotional stressors such as anxiety, fear, anger, or extreme sadness can also cause release of hormones that are designed to make you feel better and help you cope, such as adrenaline and dopamine. Again, experiencing these situations over many days to weeks can cause severe depletion of your body’s ability to fend off infection, restore balance and restore and repair its broken down parts. Just like a car that is driven too fast and too far without fuel, a body without a chance to be re-fueled, restored and repaired will have a hard time performing at its best over the long haul.


What are some of the symptoms of your body being under stress?

One of the first things that you may notice is a disruption of sleep. You may either sleep too much or too little. You may also notice a disruption in your appetite, so you may be craving things you don’t normally crave such as salt, sugar, carbohydrates or alcohol, or you may lose your appetite altogether and not take in adequate nutrients. The end result of this disruption is nutritional imbalance which impacts your body’s ability to repair itself, restore and recover.  You may also begin to experience unstable mood swings or irritability and have a hard time coping with things that may frustrate you. You may become easily angered and lose your temper, say things you regret or do things you regret such as smoking or drinking to excess or doing drugs  In essence, your resistance to negative temptations is lowered as a way for you to try to “self-soothe.”


How do you cope with stress?

How in the world can you cope with stress, knowing about all the negative consequences and how much havoc stress can wreak on your system?

One of the most important tools for stress management starts with quality, adequate and restorative sleep. You should sleep enough and deeply enough in order to blunt your body’s negative response cycles. You also must nourish your body properly with adequate amounts of water, vital nutrients and building blocks to allow for repair of broken systems. If you are struggling to be able to make these things a priority, try getting in some good old-fashioned exercise. Exercise serves to blunt the hormonal reactions from your body by causing your body to make “feel good” hormones such as endorphins. These are the healthy hormones that lower your cortisol, lower your blood pressures and give your body a sense of wellbeing.  Talking out your stressors with a counsellor or other trained professional may also help to blunt the emotional effects of stress by changing the way you respond to events that may create the stress cascade within your body.  Learning about healthy ways to cope with life’s stressors can be one the most important life lessons to learn as one thing that is certain in life is that stressful events and circumstances will always be a part of life.  Learning to recognize that you are under stress and learning how to manage your stress in a healthy way with healthy outlets in one of the most precious gifts you can give to yourself. You owe it to yourself and those you love to cope in healthy ways. As a matter of fact, I found myself a little short tempered today and feeling time pressured, so, in order to practice what I preach, I just snuck off to the gym for a quick 30-minute workout session.  I’m finding myself returning refreshed and better able to fight off the temptation to have that chocolate chip cookie I was craving and yet another cup of coffee! I might actually even head to bed a little early tonight to getting a better handle on my early day tomorrow!


If you aren’t sure if you are experiencing stress, talk with your doctor who can help you understand how stress might be affecting you and might be able to help you find better ways to cope.


Elizabeth Salada MD, MPH, FACP

Internal Medicine and wellness

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