Stress has many faces, and it can sneak on us from any direction. Whether it is an argument with your partner, unpaid bills, or an ailing child, you are bound to be in a stressful situation at some point in your life.
Once stressed out, your body floods with stress hormones. Your muscle tense, the stomach churns, your heart starts pounding, and your breath quickens. If you do not deal with the stress effectively, you might end up with high blood pressure or heart conditions.
According to a study by the University of California, Berkeley, chronic stress could cause long-term brain changes. That is why people dealing with chronic stress are prone to mental problems such as anxiety and mood disorders.
To understand how stress affects your body and mind, keep reading.
According to the Harvard Medical School health publishing, chronic stress can result in physiological changes. These series of actions prepare your body to act when faced with danger. However, these instantaneous hormonal and physiological changes could mislead the body into overreacting.
Over time, the repeated activation of the stress response could result in anxiety, depression, and addiction.
How Does Your Body React to Stress?
Stress begins in the brain when a signal reaches the emotional processing section of the brain. The brain interprets these signals, and when it perceives danger, it prompts the hypothalamus to send distress signals to the rest of the body.
Once your body perceives stress, it prompts the adrenal glands to make and release cortisol, a stress hormone, into your bloodstream. The cortisol sets your body into the default flight-or-fight response.
How Does Cortisol Work?
When your adrenal glands flood your bloodstream with cortisol, the hormone prompts an influx of glucose in the blood. The glucose readily avails energy should you have to flee or fight.
Cortisol also blocks the production of insulin that would break down the glucose to normal levels. This stress hormone, while working with epinephrine, narrows your arteries and increases your heart rate. As a result, blood rushes throughout your body as you try to resolve your immediate stressful situation.
Effects of Normal Cortisol Levels
Normal cortisol levels help regulate blood pressure and could even strengthen your heart muscles. In small doses, the hormone heightens memory, lowers pain sensitivity, and improves your immune system.
However, the fast-paced life you live does not allow for regular and small doses of cortisol. And without a reliable stress management system, you start to notice the impact of stress on your body and mind.
Effects of High Cortisol Levels
Too much of anything is bad, even the hormones that improve your immunity. And cortisol is no different. Being in a constantly stressful environment keeps your cortisol levels high. And the effects include:
- Increased blood sugar levels
- Weight gain-high cortisol levels prompt a higher calorie intake
- Heart disease-from the constricted blood vessels and high heart rate
- Digestive problems-the stress hormone shuts down systems deemed unnecessary to fight the immediate threat, such as the digestive system
- Suppressed immune system-although low and moderate cortisol levels are good for reducing inflammation; high levels leave you susceptible to cold and contagious infections.
When your body goes into defensive mode, it shuts down systems that are not involved in the process, such as the excretory system. Prolonged exposure to chronic stress goes as far as affecting your reproductive structures.
Now, how does the stress hormone affect your brain?
According to TOURO University Worldwide, chronic stress inhibits normal brain function. It does this by:
- Disrupting synapse regulation-leads to self-isolation due to the loss of sociability
- Killing brain cells
- Reducing the size of your brain-chronic stress shrinks the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain responsible for memory and learning
- It increases the size of the amygdala-the part of the brain that perceives stress, resulting in a cascade of high-stress events, hence a constant fight-or-flight mode
Recovering from Stress
According to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, PNAS, age plays a crucial role in recovering from chronic stress. The impact of stress on body functions is worse among the older generation than the young adults.
Young adults have a better chance of creating new neural pathways for the brain than older people, making it easier for them to heal.
As mentioned earlier, stress has adverse effects on body functions. Both the mind and body suffer when stress goes unmanaged.
The following are simple ways to relieve stress and anxiety:
- Talking to a therapist
- Exercise and meditation
- Get enough sleep
- Eat well
- Take a time out when you find yourself feeling anxious
- When feeling stressed, take deep breaths and count to ten slowly
Be aware of your stress levels and whenever possible, find a way to manage it. Go on that vacation that you have been planning, schedule those breaks into your timetable, take naps, and take a few minutes for deep breaths. In short, find the stress management technique that works for you and go for it.