What are the physical effects of stress?

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.
Andrew Olney/Getty Images

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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