When I look around my circle, I notice that there are very few friends of mine that are not struggling with stress. Whether you’re talking about work and motherhood, or school and friends… stress is something that in today’s world knows no age and no boundaries. But what happens when stress goes beyond the day to day chaos that comes naturally with life? What happens when it becomes chronic, and what are the side effects of chronic stress?
First and foremost, we must identify the difference between day to day acute stress and chronic stress. The simplest way to do that is to consider how long the stress lasts. Acute stress is short lived.
Typically, if your stress comes and goes, it’s more acute than chronic. Chronic stress, however, is stress that seems to take up residence in your life. It’s that constantly “on edge” feeling that wreaks havoc on things like your work life, relationships, and health.
Chronic stress affects every part of the body differently.
- Central Nervous System
- Endocrine & Hormone Health
- Heart Health and the Respiratory System
- Digestive Health
- Muscular System
- The Immune System
What You’ll Notice First, When You’re Stressed
The tough thing about finding permanent solutions to chronic stress is that it’s different for everyone and everyone’s sensitivity to depression is different.
For example, someone with a history of childhood trauma might have a much more sensitive stress response than someone who had a relatively healthy upbringing. That said, most of us will notice the same things to signal that it’s time to reduce and manage our stress levels.
Some good early warning signs of chronic stress can be things like irritability, attention and concentration issues, depression, anxiety, irritability, headaches, and insomnia.
The Benefits of Stress
You might find yourself wondering what the point of the body’s stress response is. You’ve probably heard already that stress is what alerts our body to danger.
Like other responses in the body, stress is your body’s way of letting you know that something is wrong. The problem comes in when your stress response is overactive or doesn’t ever let up. Chronic stress can lead to serious health complications, and that in and of itself can just create more stress… making it a somewhat vicious cycle.
Stress and Its Impact on the Central Nervous System
The central nervous system (referred to as CNS) has been less discussed in mainstream media than other systems in the body when it comes to stress. Part of the reason for the mystery is because science is only really just beginning to understand the central nervous system’s response to various stimuli.
The CNS is ultimately what’s responsible for the more well-known “fight or flight” response. The CNS is in charge of delegating reactions and hormones in your body to respond to stress. When something triggers a central nervous system response, it will communicate with your adrenal glands signaling a need for stress hormones.
Stress hormones are things like adrenaline, cortisol, growth hormone, prolactin, etc. There are a long list of hormones that are released when your body is triggered to respond to stress; you can find more information on the hormones triggered by stress in this study.
These hormones start working on your body to create a more intense function of the rest of your organs. Your heartbeat will increase, sending more blood to the areas that typically need it in the event of a serious emergency. Your muscles, heart, and other vital organs are first in line for the resource dispatch.
Where does the stress response get dysfunctional?
The problem with all of this comes in when your brain never tells your body to go back to normal. In a healthy stress response, as soon as the perceived threat has gone away, your body should get signals to return to normal. Chronic stress by very nature is constant, so most often in cases of chronic stress, your body never gets the memo to rest.
Keeping your body in a constant state of intensity creates health issues for your body and your mind.
Hormones and Endocrine Response to Stress
Most of the response described above is hormonal. One of the biggest and most common hormonal responses to stress is the release of cortisol. Most cells in the body have cortisol receptors, meaning that it can affect a large majority of your systems and organs.
Cortisol affects the metabolism, blood sugar levels, inflammatory response, and reproductive system most. For women, the biggest concerns of high cortisol levels are changes in the menstrual cycle and libido. Everyone can be affected by anxiety and depression and weight gain due to cortisol, though.
Heart Health and the Respiratory System
Chronic stress has a huge impact on your heart and respiratory health. Typically, the response starts in your lungs, you might notice labored breathing. Your breathing will intensify to get oxygen to your vital organs faster and more efficiently.
In a stress response, your heart pumps faster to facilitate that same oxygen delivery. Your blood vessels will tighten to get more air to your muscles and you’ll notice an increase in your blood pressure.
When stress is chronic, your heart works at this intensity for longer periods of time, causing exhaustion for the muscle. Overworking the heart can increase your risk of acute illness like heart attack or stroke.
The Digestive System and Chronic Stress
The first thing that we should talk about when it comes to your digestion and chronic stress is blood sugar. Your body is extremely efficient when it comes to preparing for a perceived threat. In an effort to give you energy to fight (or flee), your liver will create extra blood sugar.
When stress is chronic, your body can struggle to process this extra sugar. With your liver in constant creation mode, sugar continues to flow through the body in excess.
Unfortunately, in the western culture we’re already predisposed to an excess of blood sugar due a diet heavy in sugar-rich foods. This explains why chronic stress is linked to higher rates of type 2 diabetes.
Digestive Symptoms of Chronic Stress
Often, people experiencing chronic stress will experience higher rates of digestive issues like acid reflux, indigestion, and constipation.
As stress hormones pulse through your system, your stomach produces more acid. Long term, In addition to giving you heartburn, this increase in acid can contribute to you developing stomach ulcers.
Because your body is focused on fighting off the perceived threat, the way food is processed will likely change. This can cause chronic constipation and occasionally diarrhea.
The Immune System and Stress
With a rising frequency of immune system issues, it makes sense to wonder how chronic stress impacts your immune system. In general, the immune response increases when stress increases. We think that this is so that your body can fight off infection more efficiently. But much like the other system responses we’ve discussed, when the immune system is always in overdrive, you’re put in a compromised position.
Overtime, chronic levels of stress hormones will deteriorate your immune system, making you less likely to fight off toxins, viruses, and infections. This means you can get sick easier, and take longer to heal from common and uncommon illnesses.
Stress and the Muscular System
Under stress, your muscular system responds as well. To attempt to protect themselves from serious injury, your muscles tense up. For you, this will feel like neck and back pain, jaw clenching, body aches, and even headaches.
In a healthy response, your muscles will tense when your body gets a chance to relax. In the case of chronic stress, the muscles stay consistently tense, leading to a lot of discomfort.
Reproductive Health and Chronic Stress
For women, reproductive health is dramatically affected by chronic stress. Your period can become irregular, or worse, more severe. Painful, heavy periods are not uncommon when someone is suffering chronic stress. This can create a cycle that perpetuates itself.
Irregular periods and increased stress levels can of course affect fertility and hormone regulation. Like in the case of women with PCOS, chronic stress can cause an imbalance in reproductive hormones.
Beginning to Manage Your Stress
The most important factor in understanding what happens to your body during chronic stress is to understand the need to manage it. Self-care has become a bit of a buzz word lately, and for good reason. Simple lifestyle changes can dramatically improve the body’s stress response and ultimately, break the cycle of chronic stress.