The Physical and Psychological Impact of Stress
Stress can take a toll on the body both physically and psychologically. According to a 2018 Gallup Poll, “The majority of Americans (55%) said they had experienced stress during a lot of the day.” However, stress can often seem unrelated to effects in our bodies, brains, and behaviors. Having trouble concentrating, showing signs of balding, or feeling overwhelmed are much more real symptoms of stress than we’re led to believe. Understanding how stress occurs, as well as how to recognize it, are fundamental in its management.
What Is Stress?
When we feel threatened or under pressure, our bodies trigger a “stress response.” Also known as “fight or flight,” this response is a result of the nervous system instructing our bodies to release stress hormones such as cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine.
This chemical process is necessary, but not always convenient. Think about the last time you had to slam on your car breaks as someone crossed the street without looking. What enabled you to break is the same stress response you experience after a difficult day at work. The difference is that it’s needed in the former, and not in the latter.
Effects of Stress on the Body
During stressful events, our body reacts by sending signals throughout our brain, blood vessels, and nerves. These signals cause pain and discomfort to course through our body. Stress can, in turn, affect nearly every physical facet of its composure, including but not limited to the respiratory, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, nervous, and reproductive systems. Below are a few symptoms of stress to be aware of.
One of the many symptoms of stress, fatigue is a feeling of tiredness and low energy. When stress causes disturbances to a person’s sleep, day time fatigue occurs as a result. Such disturbances include insomnia, difficulty falling asleep, and difficulty staying asleep. Research conducted by the National Institute of Psychosocial Medicine found that increased levels of stress at work rendered increased levels of stress at bedtime.
Light sensitivity, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and dull, aching head pain are common symptoms of headaches. More often than people may think, stress is found to be the trigger for these symptoms. The stress can be brought on from a plethora of causes including a difficult day at work, financial hardship, or a strained relationship.
Muscle Tension and Chest Pain
Muscle contractions that don’t release, or muscle tension, is the body’s way of combating injury or pain. However, muscle tension does not have to come from physical exertion alone. Stress contributes to both short and long-term muscle and chest pain. This symptom of stress alone can contribute to other stress-related disorders such as headaches, chest pain, and upset stomach.
Decreased Sex Drive
A bad day at work can cause more than just a headache or an upset stomach. The stress felt during difficult times can seep into every aspect of a person’s life — whether they’re aware of it or not. Decreased sex drive, for example, is a potential result of stress. This problem is presented as having little to no interest in sexual activity or an inability to receive pleasure from sex. This occurs because the chemical response in the body turns off non-essential functions in order to focus on the perceived threat — whatever is causing your stress.
Before a big speech or on the first day of school, many people feel like they have butterflies in their stomach, making them woozy or nauseous. A well-disguised term for stress, butterflies in the stomach is actually the result of adverse chemical reactions in the body. The chemicals released, such as cortisol and epinephrine, can take a toll on the digestive system causing this well-known effect of stress.
Psychological Effects of Stress
Stress can weigh on your mind causing myriad concerns. Below are some of the psychological effects of stress:
A common reaction to stress, anxiety is the feeling of fear, worry, and unease experienced during challenging times. While anxiety is healthy in small amounts, too much is unfavorable, causing other symptoms such as an upset stomach or a decreased appetite. An important exam, for instance, may release a stress response that prompts you to study. However, continued fear and worry weeks after the exam is unnecessary and unfavorable.
Overactivity of the body’s stress response can lead to depression, a psychiatric disorder affecting over 300 million people globally. A decrease in serotonin caused by the stress response lends itself to feelings of hopelessness and sadness, as well as a loss of interest and restless sleep, among other symptoms. The effects of depression, in turn, contribute to increased stress — creating a vicious cycle, difficult to break.
Irritability and Anger
Irritability and anger are two often unwanted symptoms of stress. Though a healthy amount contributes to increased motivation, too much spurs dangerous transgressions, such as road rage, workplace violence, and assault. These actions, in turn, can lead to being fired or even jailed. When these situations occur, stress becomes distress — an unwanted affliction.
Lack of Concentration
Despite the common reference to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, lack of concentration is a normal occurrence for most people, with or without the disorder. Focusing on what someone is saying while a million other things run through your mind can be difficult for anybody. However, the multitude of thoughts on your mind causing such a lack of concentration could, in turn, be due to stress. Excessive amounts of stress can make concentrating difficult, if not impossible.
Restlessness is the inability to rest or relax, and can arise from stress. Arduous life events trigger a person’s stress response diminishing their ability to fall asleep, stay asleep, and concentrate.
Behavioral Symptoms of Stress
The physical and psychological effects of stress can manifest in behavioral symptoms, such as those noted below:
Changes in Appetite
Changes in appetite occur as a part of the body’s chemical reaction to an overactive stress response. The gastrointestinal system becomes disrupted, resulting in suppressed digestion and a temporary end to breaking down food. Symptoms appear as an increased or decreased appetite.
Increased Drug/Alcohol Use
The use of alcohol and drugs releases chemicals in the brain that can feel calming during times of stress. However, their effects are a temporary fix that can potentially lead to adverse long-term effects. Using drugs and alcohol to cope with life’s stressful events results in reliance and abuse. Research shows that excessive levels of stress can increase vulnerability to addiction.
Sometimes recognizing how much stress we are experiencing does not occur until we feel completely overwhelmed. Consequently, poor judgment, negative, and racing thoughts are hard to stop once started. Operating in a constant crisis-mode does not bode well for long-term health.
When stress becomes too much to handle, people may react with an outburst of emotion, whether it be anger, tears, or something else. People have a breaking point, and uncontrolled stress may bring them to it. Outbursts are commonly found in children, who have not yet learned how to regulate their emotions. However, the same symptoms may present themselves in adults.
Just as stress can lead to anxiety and depression, stress can further lead to withdrawal. The feelings of hopelessness and inadequacy experienced in these disorders contribute to the decline in social interactions. This kind of reclusive behavior may only worsen stress — creating a vicious cycle.
Long-Term Effects of Stress
Ongoing stress has the potential to exacerbate serious health problems that affect every facet of the body. The long-term effects of stress include:
Research is still being conducted to determine whether or not stress causes a direct impact on heart-related problems. However, the different ways in which people react to stress can contribute to poor heart health. People who react by overeating or decreasing physical exercise have the potential to develop conditions such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Managing stress is critical in diminishing the proclivity of these conditions. Exercising regularly, limiting caffeine intake, and maintaining a healthy diet are a few ways to enhance heart health while controlling stress levels.
Too much stress causes adverse effects on a woman’s reproductive health, including irregular or missed periods, as well as amenorrhea — the absence of periods. As the hypothalamus becomes suppressed due to the increased stress, the interconnected system of glands disrupts a woman’s normal production of hormones, leading to menstrual issues. Maintaining a healthy menstrual cycle requires managing stress levels and implementing coping mechanisms.
Stress-induced hair loss is one of the many surprising side effects that can afflict individuals. For some people, stress manifests in an urge to pull out one’s hair — known as trichotillomania — while in others stress makes hair fall out as a result of bodily functions. In the latter, the growth cycle of hair ceases upon exposure to high levels of stress leading to thin hair and balding. For quick relief, hair-growth and hair-thickening products can help mitigate this pattern. Long term relief, however, requires managing stress levels so that hair loss is stopped at the source.
Acne, eczema, hives, and psoriasis are all skin conditions that can originate from uncontrolled stress. Not only can stress bring about these irritations, but they can exacerbate already existing conditions. For example, the cortisol released from the brain during stressful moments informs the body’s glands to produce extra oil — causing acne. Feeling bad about your skin, in turn, can produce further skin irritations creating a cycle that is difficult to break. Regularly washing your face, eating healthy meals, and exercising are potential solutions to skin conditions exacerbated by stress.
Types of gastrointestinal issues are heartburn, indigestion, bloating, and constipation, among others. According to Harvard Health, “Functional gastrointestinal disorders affect 35% to 70% of people at some point in life, women more often than men.” Since exact causes are often unknown, many researchers believe stress to be a potential culprit. However, stress and gastrointestinal conditions often influence each other. Though this cycle is not easy to break, life-style changes and medication help alleviate discomfort.