10 Ways Stress Affects the Body (and How to Prevent Long-Term Damage)

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Stress is a killer. Literally. We all experience stress to some degree—from being late for an important meeting to worrying about the state of the world, undergoing a little stress is normal. When you experience chronic stress, however, it can have a deleterious effect on your body and mind, resulting in depression, insomnia, anxiety and more.

It’s easy to say “worry less,” but let’s be real: it’s 2020 and there is a lot to be concerned about. The last thing we want to do is give you another reason to worry, so consider this a gentle wakeup call and action plan. Stress can damage your body in surprising ways, but there are ways to prevent long-term issues if you take action today.

What stress does to the body

When you undergo a stressful event, your brain sends “fight or flight” signals to your body. In situations like physical threats, your body uses stress hormones to prepare the muscles, get adrenaline surging and prepare to either stand your ground or flee quickly. This has an evolutionary purpose and is completely normal.

Problems arise when your body offers the same fight or flight response for physically non-threatening situations, like going through a divorce or wondering how you’re going to pay the rent. If your body doesn’t get the “all clear” signal, those stress hormones will keep cascading through your nervous system, throwing off basic bodily functions and causing long-term damage. That’s the bad news—the good news is, you can learn to manage stress.

Here are ten major ways stress affects your body:

  1. Chronic stress increases your stomach acid production, which can cause or exacerbate heartburn.
  2. If you suffer from tension headaches, increased stress can worsen them.
  3. If you’ve ever stared at the clock, desperately trying to get back to sleep, this is likely an offshoot of excessive stress.
  4. Heart attack risk. People who have experience panic attacks routinely describe them as feeling like they’re about to have a heart attack—although panic attacks alone don’t cause heart attacks, chronic stress increases your risk.
  5. Weak immune system. The longer you experience stress, the weaker your body’s immune system response is. Your body is too focused on a (possibly non-existent) physical threat.
  6. High blood pressure. Stress hormones constrict your blood vessels, which raises your blood pressure. As you can imagine, high blood pressure over long periods of time is not good for your body.
  7. Gastrointestinal problems. Vomiting, nausea and diarrhea are common when your body is flooded with cortisol.
  8. Reproductive issues. Missed periods and fertility problems are common in people with chronic stress—unfortunately, all those unhelpful people who told you to “just relax” when trying to conceive aren’t too far off.
  9. Sexual dysfunction. Erectile dysfunction and low sex drive are side effects of chronic stress. Sex starts in the brain, and if you’re tired and depressed, it’s hard to get in the mood or maintain it.
  10. Muscle tension. Finally, muscle tension over an extended period of time can cause backaches, tension headaches and other painful side effects.

Managing your stress over the long term

If the ten above conditions sound familiar—or you don’t want to experience them in the future—it’s important to manage your stress properly in a variety of ways. For some people, identifying the cause of their stress and talking it out with a family member, friend or therapist is enough to help work through the fight or flight response. Other people have had great success with deep breathing and regular meditation.

In other cases, the physical symptoms are too overwhelming to calm down simply by talking or meditating. Exercise is a very effective way to work through the stress hormones—after all, your body thinks it’s responding to a physical threat. Cardiovascular exercise tells your body that you’re responding to the threat; when the exercise is over, your body will assume the threat has passed. Whether you take it out by a brisk run through the park or booking some time at a rage room, regular exercise and physical activity helps manage your stress.

The final component of stress management is to set limits for yourself, whether that means cutting down on your commitments or taking time out to do something you enjoy. It will help you return to your regular obligations, feeling refreshed and renewed.

Try a combination of all three of these methods to avoid long-term damage from stress.

Staff Writer

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