What are the physical effects of stress?

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Do you find you constantly have too much to accomplish and too little time to get it done? Does your daily commute make you arrive at work angry and come home worn out? Do relationship struggles take their toll on you and your physical well-being? Can you literally feel the stress in your body? Well, you're not alone. As many as 40 percent of employees claim they're burned out because of work-related stress. It accounts for an astonishing loss of $300 billion each year in the workplace in the United States alone [source: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health].

In this busy day and age, stress has a serious impact on our lives. One-third of Americans live with what they categorize as extreme stress. Half of them say that stress has a negative impact on their personal and professional lives, and 54 percent blame stress on the fights they have with loved ones. It's not surprising that 75 percent of Americans claim that money and work are the main causes of stress [source: American Psychological Association]. But it's not just a problem in the United States. Twenty-three percent of female and 19 percent of male executives throughout the world lay claim to feeling "super stressed" [source: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health].

It's doubtful that anyone reading this article is surprised by any of these statistics. Our world moves at a breakneck pace, and there's a consistent onus put on us to work harder, move faster and get further before we die. Unfortunately, we could all die sooner because of this very notion. Stress not only causes depression and mental strain, but it has a big physical impact on your body as well.

Many of the things you might think are normal physical ups and downs are actually due to stress. That headache you always get may be caused by stress. Same with your asthma and eczema. The bad back you think is due to your advanced age? It could be because of stress. If you're constipated or have diarrhea, it might have more to do with stress than anything you've had to eat. These are just some of the effects of acute or temporary stress. Chronic stress over an extended period of time can do as much damage to your body as smoking, not eating right and failing to exercise.

Physical Effects of Acute Stress

Many people in the workforce may feel like this poor schemp.
Many people in the workforce may feel like this poor schemp.
Michael Blann/Getty Images

Acute stress is an immediate reaction to a stressful situation. It could mean that you're in danger, you've just had a work deadline moved up, your boss is in your face yelling at you, or you and your spouse have had a blowout. When you get stressed out suddenly, a chain reaction occurs in your body. First, your hypothalamus is activated. It's located above the brain stem and is responsible for linking your nervous system (your body's communicator) to your endocrine system (a group of organs that release hormones) by way of the pituitary gland. This also tells the sympathetic nervous system to get going.

This part of your nervous system controls what you may know as the fight-or-flight response. It's basically your body's way of dealing with acute stress.

If your boss is in your face yelling at you, you'll be inclined to either fight back or get the heck out of there. The same held true for the cavemen when they faced a wooly mammoth, and the same will hold true for the future man when faced with a Martian's laser gun. Maybe that's a reach, but you get the point -- humans have always had the sympathetic system to deal with immediate stressors.

The physical effects of this kind of immediate stress range from an increased heartbeat to shallow breathing. This is because there's a greater flow of oxygen into the body. Your pupils will dilate to allow more light to enter your eye. All of these things happen because of a release of adrenaline -- the body's main stress hormone. There's also a release of cortisol, another stress hormone, by the adrenal gland. Cortisol will jack up your blood pressure and blood sugar. Your liver will begin to manufacture some glucose to provide you with extra energy as well. After your stress goes away you may feel a physical crash -- this is because of the extra glucose you've burned off. It essentially leaves you with a low supply of blood sugar, like when you haven't had anything to eat all day.

The diarrhea we talked about on the previous page comes about because stress can make the bowels move faster. When your bowels are moving rapidly, there's less time for water to be reabsorbed into your body and just like that, you suddenly have watery stools. Thanks, stress!

The key to combating acute stress is to reach a point of homeostasis, which is a fancy way of saying equilibrium, or "chilled out." Your blood pressure and blood sugar will return to its normal state, as will your heart rate and pupils. There are several ways to regulate acute stress:

  • Recognize exactly what's stressing you out.
  • Try to leave the stressful situation if possible.
  • Go for a quick jog or walk if you can.
  • Take three to five deep breaths.
  • Practice relaxation exercises like meditation or yoga.

All of these techniques can help you deal with immediate acute stress. And of course there's the old standby that may seem trite, but actually works -- count to 10.

Physical Effects of Chronic Stress

Chronic stress could eventually send you to the emergency room.
Chronic stress could eventually send you to the emergency room.
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Chronic stress is a state of prolonged and continuous stress, and it can have some pretty drastic effects on your body. What's happening here is that your sympathetic system that helps you deal with the fight-or-flight response is always turned on. But in this case, there's not an immediate danger that you face and then come down from, achieving homeostasis. It's not good for your body to be in a constant state of danger management.

Your liver normally monitors the release of the stress hormone cortisol and other corticoids by your adrenal gland. When you're chronically stressed, your liver is bypassed and the corticoids are able to run rampant. Too many corticoids can lead to a reduction in your immune system. The result is that you'll have an easier time getting sick. If you've ever had an extremely stressful couple of weeks followed by a bad cold or flu, then you know what we're talking about here. Too many corticoids also make the body more resistant to its stress hormone cousin, adrenaline. Trouble is, the adrenaline keeps on chugging when you're chronically stressed. This can eventually lead to a stomach ulcer, as adrenaline pumps up the level of acid your stomach produces. It's also a reason that chronically stressed people may also have chronic heartburn.

The American Institute of Stress lists 50 symptoms of stress. Aside from the ones we've already talked about, you could expect to experience some of the following:

  • grinding teeth
  • stuttering
  • tremors
  • ringing or buzzing sounds
  • sweaty palms and feet
  • chronic blushing
  • dry mouth
  • allergy attacks
  • chest pain
  • rapid and garbled speech patterns
  • unexplained weight loss and gain

If these aren't bad enough, how do you feel about losing your hair, not being able to perform sexually or an inability to get pregnant? What about muscle spasms and skin rashes? Of course, these symptoms won't kill you, but high blood pressure can. Hypertension is one of the most dangerous physical effects that chronic stress can have on your body. If your blood pressure stays high for too long, it can lead to heart disease or cardiac arrest.

So how do you combat chronic stress? In much the same way you deal with acute stress. You just need to build these practices in as a part of your life culture. Take the time to exercise, even if it's just walking. The more you enjoy the exercise the better, because that also means you're experiencing pleasure instead of stress. The old saying, "don't sweat the small stuff," is an axiom you should try to embrace. See if you can prioritize the things that seem to stress you out. Let the ones that really aren't so important fall away and work on the rest in a calm and organized way. Some stressors you just can't avoid though, so if you lead a high stress life you can at least eat well and lay off the alcohol and cigarettes to combat the pressures of your job or lifestyle.

You should also make an attempt to not stress about the things you can't do anything about. You probably have enough job-related stress, so why are so worried about the traffic you sit in on the way home? It's not going anywhere, and there's nothing you can do to change it. If you're chronically stressed, have your doctor check you out to make sure you aren't doing any long term damage to your body. Take control of your stressors and you might be surprised at the difference it can make in your life.

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Sources

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