What happens to your body when you’re stressed?

March 11, 2016

Stress is a natural body response to any good or bad experience. It is a part of life that can be triggered by negative circumstances such as death of a loved one, family pressure, work abuse, natural calamities, and certain catastrophic events in life. Traumatic stress associated with disaster, war, or a violent attack can elevate the body’s stress levels for longer duration than one’s survival. This is because stress is generally associated with mental, physical and emotional reactions, to which our body responds by increasing heart rate, breathing rate, hormones, and neurochemicals.

Long-term stress affects entire body system including overall wellbeing and is a triggering factor to wide range of ailments discussed as follows:

  • Respiratory System

Stress generally increases breathing rate. It makes breathing harder, compromises oxygen supply to the tissues, especially in patients with pre-existing respiratory disorders such as emphysema, lung conditions and asthma. Acute stress worsens the asthmatic symptoms by compromising the airway passage and constricting the lung muscles. Stress triggers rapid breathing, increases respiratory rate and causes hyperventilation and worsens panic episodes in patients with pre-existing panic disorders. Breathing exercises such as pranayama and mind relaxation techniques can address these conditions.

  • Musculoskeletal System

The body responds to stress by developing muscle tension, which is a reflex reaction to stress. The defense reaction of a body against pain and injury is evident in the form of muscle tension. Sudden- onset stress causes muscle tension that subsidies following a stress response. In contrast, chronic stress makes the body muscles tense and taut for longer duration; alters body chemicals; triggers body related ailments; and stress-related disorders. Migraine and tension headache are characterized by chronic muscle tension in the shoulders, head and neck regions. Chronic stress-related musculoskeletal disorders are associated with body disuse-related muscular atrophies. Stress related muscle tension can be minimized by certain physical exercises, physiotherapy and relaxation techniques.


  • Endocrine system

Pre- or post-menopausal women are at a higher risk of developing stress-related heart conditions. Postmenopausal women tend to develop low estrogen levels and are more prone to stress-related ailments. During stress, the hypothalamus signals the pituitary gland and autonomic nervous system to release stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine. This triggers excessive glucose production in the liver releasing more blood sugar into the system. This process can worsen the symptoms in patients with pre-existing type 2 Diabetes and obesity.

  • Cardiovascular system

Acute or short-term stress causes strong heart muscle contractions, increases heart rate, and elevates stress hormones such as cortisol, noradrenaline and adrenaline. These hormones lead to rapid heart rate, increase respiratory rate, alter glucose levels, compromise normal digestive function, and dilate the arms and leg muscles. This process alters blood circulation and causes dilatation of the heart muscles, thus increasing blood pressure. This triggers the fight or flight response in the body. However, the body function gets back to normal state after an acute stressful episode subsides. Constant, chronic stress for prolonged duration can trigger inflammation in the circulatory system, long-standing heart and circulatory disorders such as heart attack, coronary artery disease, hypertension and stroke.

  • Nervous System

During emotional distress, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) triggers the “fight or flight” response. The body utilizes its energy resources and the SNS activates the adrenal system to secrete stress hormones called cortisol and adrenaline. Elevated stress hormone levels for long periods of time as in chronic stress can trigger psychological disorders such as anxiety, depression, binge eating disorders, anorexia, substance abuse, alcohol abuse, obsessive compulsive disorders and schizophrenia. Symptoms of depression include anxiety, anger, either oversleeping or insomnia, either overeating or anorexia, loss of libido, erratic mood swings, social withdrawal and suicidal contemplation in severe cases. Stress alters brain neurochemicals and neurotransmitters in the brain predisposing to mood disorders.

  • Gastrointestinal system

Stress alters normal eating patterns. Overeating or increased alcohol intake or tobacco can cause acid reflux or painful heartburn. During stress, brain releases certain chemicals that cause anxiety. This process alters stomach sensations resulting in nausea, severe stomach pain, ulcers or vomiting. Stress affects the normal digestive process, nutrient absorption, and bowel movement triggering constipation or diarrhea.

  • Reproductive System

Stress causes excessive release of cortisol hormone, alters testosterone levels, sperm production and maturation resulting in impotence or erectile dysfunction in men. Stress affects immune system contributing to infections of the urethra, prostate gland and testes. In women, stress can cause painful and irregular menstrual cycles, worsen premenstrual syndrome, menopause related hormonal imbalances, and miscarriages.

Although, it is common to get stressed out; however, chronic stress can have a long term impact on overall health and can cause wide range of symptoms. Balanced diet, exercises and mind relaxation techniques can help to get rid of stress and prevent these body ailments.





About the Author

Katleen Brown is a health, beauty and fitness writer. She loves to publish her articles on various health related websites. In her spare time, likes to do research to bring awareness. Recognizing the unity of body, mind, and outlook, she helps empower women to tune into their innate & inner wisdom to transform their health and truly flourish. Get in touch with her on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.

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