You have a big presentation tomorrow and aren’t feeling prepared.
You’ve been stuck working at home, balancing the demands of your full-time job while monitoring your kids’ remote learning sessions – you feel like you are failing on all fronts.
You know that sleep and exercise are healthy but you haven’t gone to the gym for ages and can’t seem to get to bed before 1am – there is just so much to do!
Even if you aren’t experiencing these situations, you can probably think of other stressors in your life, either of the past or present. Wouldn’t it be great if we can just erase all the feelings of stress and start with a peaceful slate?
Well, stress is not a necessarily bad thing. Our body’s fight or flight response has helped our hunter-gatherer ancestors survive and also has helped us meet deadlines, avoid traffic accidents, or increase our motivation to complete tasks more efficiently. A small amount of stress can even bolster the immune system, helping you fight a cold or infection. Stress also strengthens resilience and promotes social bonding, through the secretion of oxytocin. This may be the body’s way to tell us that seeking social support during times of need will help us to heal faster.
Severe or prolonged periods of stress – caused by a toxic work environment, a cancer diagnosis, or a death of a loved one – can lead to harmful consequences if the stress is left unmanaged. Here, we detail how chronic stress contributes to physical and mental health problems so you may be more aware of how important stress management is to our daily lives.
Muscle tension and chronic pain
Chronic stress causes your muscles to tense up in your neck, shoulders, jaws and back. In addition, tension headaches and migraines are also associated with stress. Stress can also trigger chronic pain disorders. Practicing routine relaxation techniques or other stress-relieving activities may help reduce muscle tension, headaches, and increase mood and daily function.
Adrenaline and cortisol are hormones released during stress that act as messengers to get your heart pumping. Your blood vessels dilate in order to provide more blood to your heart and muscles for oxygen and energy. This increases your blood pressure. Chronic stress can contribute to long-term problems for the heart and blood vessels, leading to an increased risk for hypertension, heart attacks, and stroke. High levels of cortisol can increase blood cholesterol, triglyceride and blood sugar, which are common risk factors for heart disease.
Stress often causes rapid breathing and shortness of breath. During times of stress, you breathe faster in an effort to distribute more oxygen-rich blood to your body. In fact, blood flow increases almost 300-400% during a stressful event! If a person suffers from a chronic lung disease like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or pulmonary fibrosis, their ability to navigate a stressful situation is impaired due to difficulties in breathing or oxygen supply. Stressful events further cause difficulties in breathing and perpetuates a vicious cycle. Stress may also trigger asthma attacks as well as panic attacks. Relaxation techniques or other cognitive behavioral strategies, while difficult, may help stop this cycle.
The gastrointestinal tract includes the esophagus, stomach and intestines, all of which helps you ingest and digest food. Stress can change eating patterns—making a person suddenly lose their appetite or eat more. On the contrary to popular belief, stress does not cause stomach ulcers, which are caused by bacterial infections or overuse of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. However, stress can slow the healing process from the ulcers. Reducing or controlling stress can help reduce some of the symptoms, such as heartburn or acid reflux.
Your gut also houses millions of neurons that interfaces with the gut to help with digestion. These neurons also are responsible for that “butterflies in your stomach” feeling or even your mood. Your gut knows when you are stressed. For example, the fear of speaking in front of hundreds of people may cause abdominal pain and frequent bowel movements. Stress also worsens pre-existing gastrointestinal problems such as inflammatory bowel disorders, in which symptoms or flare-ups can be alleviated by relaxation techniques or cognitive behavior therapy.
Chronic stress affects sexual health and reproduction for both men and woman. For men, stress decreases testosterone which decreases libido and causes erectile dysfunction. Stress also affects sperm motility and results in a lower percentage of “healthy sperm.” For women, stress also decreases libido and impacts the ability to conceive. Stress affects menstruation, causing irregular or skipped cycles or more painful periods.
Long term stress increases risk of mental health problems such as anxiety and depression but the reason behind this has remained unclear. Some research have shown that people who experience chronic stress have more “white matter” compared to “gray matter” in some regions of their brain. It’s thought that chronic stress causes an imbalance in the brain, which may contribute to altered cognitive function, memory, and even the ability to cope with stress. Practicing self-care, seeking social support, or attending stress management sessions are ways to help with mental health in addition to protecting against changes of the brain.
Dr. Linda May-Zhang has over 10 years of research experience in nutrition, chronic diseases and pharmacology. She has published over 20 peer-reviewed academic papers in scientific journals. She is also a science writer with a passion for educating the lay public.