When your body perceives you are under threat, it goes into fight-or-flight mode, diverting energy away from functions like digesting food or fortifying your immune system to functions that help it prepare for attack. Your sympathetic nervous system signals your adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol, which make your heart beat faster, raise your blood pressure, increase blood flow to your extremities and boost glucose levels in your bloodstream. Once the threat passes, things typically return to normal.
While this acute stress response can help you react to a short-term emergency, chronic stress can take a tremendous toll on your whole body. Over time, elevated levels of cortisol can have a detrimental effect on your physical, mental and emotional health.
- Cardiovascular system – Stress increases your heart rate and blood pressure which can, over time, increase your risk of hypertension (high blood pressure), heart attack, heart disease or stroke.
- Nervous system - Stress can trigger and intensify tension headaches, contribute to depression and cause insomnia. Chronic stress can also have a marked effect on your mood, causing you to lack motivation or focus, or to feel anxious, restless, overwhelmed, irritable, angry or sad.
- Musculoskeletal system – Stress makes muscles tense, which, over time, can lead to tension headaches, migraines, backaches and other musculoskeletal conditions.
- Respiratory system – Stress can make you breathe harder, which can cause problems for people with asthma or a lung disease, such as emphysema. In addition, stress can lead to hyperventilation (rapid breathing) and panic attacks in individuals prone to panic attacks.
- Endocrine system – Under stress, your body produces the “stress hormones” cortisol and epinephrine, causing your liver to produce more glucose for energy for “fight or flight.” For people at risk for type 2 diabetes, that extra blood sugar can trigger type 2 diabetes.
- Digestive system – Stress can cause you to “stress eat” (over eat, under eat or eat foods you would not normally eat) or increase your use of tobacco or alcohol, all of which can lead to heartburn or acid reflux. When you are stressed, you may experience stomach pain, nausea or vomiting. Stress can affect digestion, including the pace at which food moves through your system, causing either constipation or diarrhea.
- Reproductive system – Stress can lead to a myriad of reproductive problems, affecting sexual desire, fertility, menstruation cycles and symptoms of menopause.
- Immune system - Raised levels of cortisol for prolonged periods can weaken your immune system, making you more vulnerable to infections. Stress can also trigger autoimmune diseases, make them more severe or cause flare-ups.
While stress is essential for survival, the chemicals it triggers can lead to chronic health problems, including the ones listed above. If you experience these symptoms, chronic stress might be the culprit. Learning how to remain calm in stressful situations is a good first step.
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