How stress affects your body
When you experience stress, your pituitary gland responds by increasing the release of a hormone called adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). When the pituitary sends out this burst of ACTH, it’s like an alarm system going off deep inside your brain. This alarm tells your adrenal glands, situated atop your kidneys, to release a flood of stress hormones into your bloodstream, including cortisol and adrenaline. These stress hormones cause a whole series of physiological changes in your body, such as increasing your heart rate and blood pressure, shutting down your digestive system, and altering your immune system. Once the perceived threat is gone, the levels of cortisol and adrenaline in your bloodstream decline, and your heart rate and blood pressure and all of your other body functions return to normal.
In response to stress your body automatically increases blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, metabolism, and blood flow to your muscles. This response is intended to help your body react quickly and effectively to a high-pressure situation.
If stressful situations pile up one after another, your body has no chance to recover. This long-term activation of the stress-response system can disrupt almost all your body’s processes. Some of the most common physical responses to chronic stress are experienced in the digestive system. For example, stomach aches or diarrhea are very common when you’re stressed. This happens because stress hormones slow the release of stomach acid and the emptying of the stomach. The same hormones also stimulate the colon, which speeds the passage of its contents.
Chronic stress tends to dampen your immune system as well, making you more susceptible to colds and other infections. Typically, your immune system responds to infection by releasing several substances that cause inflammation. Chronic systemic inflammation contributes to the development of many degenerative diseases.
Stress has been linked with the nervous system as well, since it can lead to depression, anxiety, panic attacks and dementia. Over time, the chronic release of cortisol can cause damage to several structures in the brain. Excessive amounts of cortisol can also cause sleep disturbances and a loss of sex drive. The cardiovascular system is also affected by stress because there may be an increase in both heart rate and blood pressure, which may lead to heart attacks or strokes.
Exactly how you react to a specific stressor may be completely different from anyone else. Some people are naturally laid-back about almost everything, while others react strongly at the slightest hint of stress. If you have had any of the following conditions, it may be a sign that you are suffering from stress: Anxiety, Insomnia, back pain, relationship problems, constipation, shortness of breath, depression, stiff neck, fatigue, upset stomach, and weight gain or loss.
After decades of research, it is clear that the negative effects associated with stress are real. Although you may not always be able to avoid stressful situations, there are a number of things that you can do to reduce the effect that stress has on your body. The first is relaxation. Learning to relax doesn’t have to be difficult. Here are some simple techniques to help get you started on your way to tranquility.