In today’s world, it feels like you’re constantly being pulled in 15 different directions. There are demands at work, deadlines to meet, and a nasty boss to please. There’s pressure at home with bills that need paying, windows that need washing, and laundry that needs put away. And then, there’s life with your partner, children, parents, family, friends, finances, and more. It’s no wonder many American are stressed out.
What many people don’t understand is what stress actually does to you. Yes, you know it keeps you up at night, and it makes you binge on Oreos, but that’s only the beginning. Here are five different ways your body reacts when you’re dealing with stress, whether it’s a crisis, something unexpected, or the day-to-day grind. By understanding what’s happening to your body and why it happens, you’re able to be your own health hero and live the best life you can.
Stress Engages the Fight or Flight Mechanism
The body’s natural response to stress is to do one of two things: fight or flight. In nature, our ancient ancestors’ stressors were life-threatening, whether it was a tornado or a pack of wild dogs. The only options were to stand and fight or run away as fast as they could. While those options aren’t as viable today, your body doesn’t know that and automatically prepares you by inducing the acute stress response system.
It Releases Stress Hormones
While the fight or flight mechanism tenses your muscles to prepare you for whatever’s coming your way, the brain releases a range of stress hormones, particularly cortisol and epinephrine, commonly referred to as adrenaline. These chemicals boost your energy and keep you focused on the task at hand. They increase heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing. These hormones also cause the liver to increase the production of glucose, giving you another energy boost. Yet in today’s world and with modern stressors, the extra sugar boost isn’t needed and can end up being problematic for those who are under chronic stress and predisposed to type 2 diabetes.
Stress Compromises Your Immune System
Cortisol increases the body’s inflammation response, which in turn lowers the immune system. For the brief time it takes to respond to stress, this doesn’t have much of an impact, but for those with chronic stress, it’s huge. Colds are more severe and last longer. You’re more prone to infections and likely to get sick when someone around you is ill. For those who go through a period of intense chronic stress, such as taking care of a loved one with a terminal illness, this same inflammation can cause hair to thin and fall out.
Stress Dries Skin and Impedes Healing
When you’re stressed, the body naturally pulls water and moisture from the skin, perhaps to utilize it during exertion to keep you hydrated. Over time, the skin dries out, especially the outer layers which naturally lose more moisture. Your dry, dehydrated skin begins to lose its ability to heal and regenerate. This slows the healing process and leaves you more likely to have lingering cuts, scrapes, and bruises. Keep an eye on these wounds. Your immune system is already weakened, so you’re more likely to get infections.
Stress Increases Gastrointestinal Distress
Does stress ever cause you to get butterflies in your stomach? How about the sudden urge to go to the bathroom? Has it ever gotten so bad, you’ve felt the need to throw up? Well, you’re not alone. Stress hormones are known to upset the stomach, induce vomiting, and even cause diarrhea.
- Chronic stress is linked to numerous disorders and is the cause of 90 percent of family doctor visits. And 50 percent of Americans report having extreme levels of stress at least part of the time. Relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or yoga, reduce the levels of stress hormones.
- Practice mindfulness and learn to be in the moment to combat chronic stress.
- Spend time in nature, as it relaxes the body and allows the mind to reset.
Find this and other health-promoting articles by Dr. Partha Nandi on his website, Ask Dr. Nandi.