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How does stress affect the body: a breakdown by system

August 11, 2022 - 16 min read

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What is stress?

What happens to your body when you’re stressed?

7 long-term effects of stress on the body

5 effects of stress on the mind

5 effects of stress on behavior

4 effects of stress on emotions

How does stress affect your sleep?

When to seek professional help

It's going to be a busy day at work, but you're stuck in traffic. Inching along the highway, you have an upset stomach. You feel your blood pressure rise as you think about how you'll be late for work. 

You try deep breathing exercises and other stress management techniques, but nothing's working. Then you might wonder, "How does stress affect the body?" since you're experiencing it right now. 

Stressful situations give your entire body trouble, and current events don’t help. A 2022 survey by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that 81% of Americans say global uncertainty is a significant source of stress. And large amounts of stress come with a list of adverse health effects.

But today, we'll explain how stress impacts the body when you're awake and asleep, along with some tips on how to combat it.

 

What is stress?

Stress is your body’s reaction to various potential or perceived threats. When you encounter any challenge or stress trigger, your body reacts. Stressors can be a change in routine, remembering past traumatic events, or parts of your daily routine. Any of these events determine how stress impacts your health.

There are a few different types of stress, too, like acute and chronic stress. With acute stress, you feel the mental and physical symptoms short term. But chronic stress is more of a long-term experience. It feels like it never ends and causes you to worry about your stress more.

What would you think if we said there's bad stress and good stress? Some forms of stress, like eustress, are good for us. It excites us and stimulates our minds. 

It’s tricky to figure out what kind of stress you experience. If you need some help, consider meeting with a BetterUp coach to learn more about yourself and what kind of habits you can develop to experience less damaging stress.

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What happens to your body when you’re stressed?

Let’s go back to when you’re already running late for work and get stuck in traffic. This is what's happening to your body under stress.

First, your amygdala, which is the part of your brain that processes your emotions, recognizes the threat. It sends a signal of distress to your hypothalamus. Your nervous system sends signals as your brain triggers a fight-or-flight-response.

Then your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis) releases stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones cause you to feel muscle tension, chest pain, or a fast heartbeat. Everyone experiences different symptoms, depending on your body and what you’re experiencing. 

If these hormones are overproduced and linger from chronic stress, your body slows down. Your reproductive activity decreases, along with your immune responses and heart function. They even cause mood disorders.

But after the threat goes away, your hypothalamus sends a signal back to your nervous system that things can return to normal. The fight or flight feeling recedes, and your stress disappears.

7 long-term effects of stress on the body

Since stress is common and everyone experiences it, your body can handle it in smaller doses. But long-term stress can impact your body in different ways, as we mentioned above. The American Psychological Association (APA) has studied how long-term effects of chronic stress impact your whole body

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Here's where they found stress impacts us and what stress can do to your body:

1. Musculoskeletal system

As you become stressed, your muscles grow tense. Your body thinks it's protecting you from pain or injury. But if muscles are tense for too long, it can cause migraines and shoulder or neck pain. Frequent and intense muscle tension then causes other long-term musculoskeletal conditions, like chronic pain disorders.

2. Respiratory system

When you’re stressed, you may feel a shortness of breath or rapid breathing that feels uncomfortable because your airway feels restricted. It can feel like you’re having a panic attack — and even lead to a panic attack. This is manageable, even if you have a pre-existing respiratory condition.

Mastering some breathing exercises will help manage the shortness of breath that comes with this stress.

3. Endocrine system

The endocrine system is your body’s network of glands and organs that release various hormones. It works with your HPA axis to send out stress hormones. While cortisol can make you feel more energized to manage stressful events, too much of it may damage your HPA axis.

Communication issues between these parts of the brain increase your risk of mental and physical health problems, like depression or a weakened immune system.

4. Cardiovascular system

Short-term, acute stress increases our heart rate, and repeated acute stress can damage or inflame your coronary arteries and lead to heart issues. But chronic stress is more likely to cause long-term heart problems, leading to increased risk of heart attack, high blood pressure, and other forms of heart disease. 

5. Gastrointestinal system

Stress impacts your gut because of the vagus nerve, connected to the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The vagus nerve stretches from your brain to intestines and connects all your body’s major systems. Its functions are involuntary and limit inflammation, regulating hunger, digestion, and more.

Too much stress might inhibit its function, which is partially why you have pain in your bowels that causes constipation, diarrhea, or ulcers. 

6. Nervous system

Your central nervous system (CNS) and ANS play a big role in how your body reacts to stress. The difference between what the CNS and ANS do for stress responses is about what area of your body they control.

Your CNS consists of the brain and spinal cord, and it’s what notifies the brain to respond to potential threats. The ANS controls involuntary movements and causes reactions out of your control, like increased heart rates and digestive problems.

7. Reproductive system

The stress hormone cortisol impacts blood pressure and regulation, and too much causes reproductive systems to stop functioning properly. Too many stress hormones pumping through your body throws off your natural biochemical functioning.

Excessive cortisol impacts testosterone production, libido, and menstruation. It can even cause complications for people during pregnancy and postpartum. 

5 effects of stress on the mind

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Some stressors may feel like a brief moment in your day, but that doesn't mean they leave your mind immediately. You might have thought you were past a stressful situation, but it lingers. 

Psychiatrist Dr. Kerry Ressler found several ways that chronic stress impacts and alters your mind:

  1. It impacts your memory: During traumatic events, your memory might lapse while your brain focuses on keeping you alive. Even stressful situations that aren’t life-or-death — like prepping for a big presentation — demand most of your attention. Small things can easily slip by you.
  2. You become exhausted: You feel drained of energy during and after stressful moments because your brain is tired from working so hard to stay alert.
  3. You can't focus properly: When stress monopolizes your attention, you don’t have the capacity to process your emotions or be mindful of your surroundings. You might struggle to pay attention to whatever else is happening in your life because continuous stress demands all of your energy.
  4. You’re overwhelmed: Your mind can often feel unorganized, and stress doesn’t help. Simple tasks that you do on a routine basis might become tricky, leading to mistakes, confusion, and indecision. 
  5. It keeps you on guard: Since your brain is in survival mode, all your resources are protecting you. This could make you overly defensive. 

5 effects of stress on behavior

Stress’s impact on your mind can dictate how you behave. Here are five behaviors that can be a stress response:

  1. Overeating or under-eating unhealthy or healthy foods
  2. Having angry outbursts with loved ones
  3. Using drugs or alcohol excessively 
  4. Withdrawing from social situations and becoming distant from people
  5. Failing to be physically active or exercise

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4 effects of stress on emotions

As your brain works overtime to deal with the threat you're facing, your stress can threaten your emotional well-being. 

If you're feeling stressed at work, it's possible that you only experience those emotions in the office. But your stress can follow you home — especially if you work from home. There might be no way to distinguish when the workday is over, blurring your work and personal lives.

Here are four ways that stress impacts your emotions, both short term and long term:

  1. You can become depressed: Research has pointed toward stressful events like losing a loved one or being fired from your job to be involved in the onset of depression
  2. You can feel anxious: Studies show there are many overlapping symptoms and causes between anxiety and stress. Anxiety heightens your vigilance and how sensitive your sensors are. It can cause uncontrollable worrying and interfere with how you act since we’re on high alert for danger. 
  3. You’re lonelier: Being stressed can cause you to withdraw from social settings, so it contributes to loneliness. On a short-term or long-term basis, social isolation and loneliness harm your mental health.
  4. You’re irritable: You feel irritated when your brain deals with possible threats, and other people distract you. Plus, it leads you to express more angry and moody feelings.

How does stress affect your sleep?

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Do you know those nights when your mind explodes with thoughts, and you just can't seem to relax? That's your stress making its presence known. And learning how to sleep when stressed is tough. Your body still creates stress hormones at night, so you feel the other physical impacts while trying to sleep. 

Finding stress relief is hard when your sleep is disturbed. Stress keeps us awake or makes us sleep far too much. After your exhausting brain activity, you could hit the pillow hard or struggle to unwind.

A lack of sleep or too much of it signifies that your stress is prolonged. This is a sign that you need a relaxing bedtime routine or a schedule that doesn't let you oversleep.

When to seek professional help

There comes a time when your stress levels are too much for you to handle by yourself. You've learned how stress affects the body and causes serious health problems, so you know it needs managing. But your family members and close friends may not be able to support you when your symptoms of stress become serious, so seeking professional help is crucial.

We've discussed plenty of ways that stress impacts the body, and it's clear why it’s important to reduce stress. To live a meaningful life, you should prioritize your health and take care of yourself. A professional can help you identify your stressors and what stress management techniques work for you. They do this by tracking your stress and helping you become more self-aware.

Opening up to someone might sound a little uncomfortable, but it can provide you with the stress relief you deserve.

Whether your stress is extreme or not, you should never be intimidated to ask for help.

At BetterUp, we're all about journeys of self-discovery and putting in the work to help everyone live meaningful, sustainable lives. Our coaches can teach you how to manage your stress to live a healthy lifestyle.

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Published August 11, 2022

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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