If you’ve ever uttered (or even thought) the phrase “I’m so stressed,” you’ll know that being stressed affects more than your mental state. Your muscles tense up, your jaw clenches tight, or your breathing pattern becomes abnormal. And while occasional stress is normal and expected, being in a stressed state over a long period can cause lasting health conditions.
So take a deep breath, relax your body, and safeguard your wellbeing by learning more about how stress affects your body:
How does stress affect your body?
Most people understand stress in a mental and emotional sense, but not everyone understands the biological processes that the body undergoes from stress. So, let's begin with the main stress hormone: cortisol.
Cortisol levels in your body indicate when you experience stress: levels rise when you’re stressed and go down when you no longer face stress triggers. In your stressed state, your autonomic nervous system prepares your body for perceived dangers and activates the fight-or-flight response. The nervous system releases adrenaline, causing you to experience increased heart rate, quicker breaths, and higher blood pressure.
Most people face acute (or short-term) stress responses regularly due to arguments, deadlines, traffic, and so on. But because the stress is temporary, cortisol levels return to normal and flight-or-fight symptoms disappear on their own.
However, chronic (or long-term) stress is a different story. If the stress trigger remains, you can feel an overwhelming or constant sense of stress. You can experience long-term stress for several reasons, including socioeconomic factors, ongoing difficulties from a job, and unstable family or marriage dynamics.
Chronic stress causes you to experience different symptoms than acute symptoms. These include:
- Appetite changes
- Low levels of energy
- Changes in sleep and social behavior
- Emotional changes around friends and family
What are the long-term effects of stress?
In addition to the symptoms listed above, chronic stress (and the resulting elevated cortisol levels) can increase your risk for severe conditions or diseases. Here are five effects of long-term stress to watch out for:
1. You face a higher risk for infections and diseases.
Cortisol affects various bodily functions, like your inflammation response. During an acute stress response, higher cortisol levels suppress your inflammatory response and prevent your immune system from fully functioning. But this isn't harmful in the short term — as your cortisol levels normalize, so does your immune system.
However, elevated cortisol levels from chronic stress pose serious threats to your health. When the immune system is so used to increased cortisol levels, your immune system no longer responds to cortisol’s call to suppress your immune system. This may lead to an increase in inflammation, compromising your immune system. As a result, you become more susceptible to infections, diseases, and longer healing times.
2. You can experience disruptions to your digestion.
Ever felt queasy from stress? That’s a normal response. It’s no myth that your brain and gut are connected, and psychological stress can alter your gastrointestinal tract function.
In these instances, stress activates increased inflammation in your guts and disrupts your gastrointestinal barrier. This means your gut can't properly filter out hostile microorganisms from nutrients, and you develop leaky gut syndrome. Symptoms of this syndrome (like indigestion, diarrhea, and more) cause real discomfort and ultimately repress normal digestive function.
3. You may experience muscle pain.
One of the ways your body reacts to stress is by changing muscle posture. Tense muscles are part of a reaction guarding you against any potential injury or pain. So, it’s normal if you notice you’re shifting from a loose, pliant back to tight shoulders and a rigid composure while stressed. Again, this is only temporary during acute stress responses.
On the other hand, chronic stress may alter your muscles permanently or cause lasting pain. You may experience ongoing tension headaches from tight muscles, and elevated cortisol levels can even generate bone and muscle breakdown.
4. You can develop a higher risk for mental health conditions like depression and anxiety.
Constant stress can put you at a higher risk of experiencing anxiety. Studies have even found a connection between elevated cortisol levels and anxiety conditions such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
But that's not all. The central nervous system, which is responsible for essential chemicals like serotonin (a hormone that influences your happiness), can alter due to elevated cortisol levels from chronic stress. This can contribute heavily to the state of your mental health, as lack of serotonin is linked to other conditions like depression.
5. You’re at a greater risk of experiencing life-altering heart conditions.
Your heart is one of the most vital organs to keep healthy; unfortunately, your cardiovascular health suffers when you’re overloaded with stress. Chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure, a condition in which your blood is rushing through your body too quickly. But your cardiovascular system can only handle so much, and your heart and blood vessels eventually undergo significant wear and tear. Over time, your artery tissues become damaged, leading to an increased risk for potentially fatal conditions like heart attack and stroke.
How do we regulate stress?
Although the long-term effects of stress seem alarming, we have good news: you can regulate and manage stress levels with easy-to-implement lifestyle changes like exercise and a healthy diet. Try these tips to lower cortisol levels and improve mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing:
- Focus on getting better quality sleep. If you're up late at night, you may exacerbate your stress. Studies show that sleep deprivation can cause elevated cortisol levels, resulting in poor stress management.
- Leverage mindfulness in stressful situations. Yes, this works! Studies have shown that mindfulness is one of the best ways to regulate your stress and reduce psychological distress.
- Practice yoga regularly. Get your body moving and breath flowing with yoga, which reduces cortisol levels and provides relief for those dealing with depression.
- Indulge in dark chocolate and tea. Luckily for those with a sweet tooth, dark chocolate has been shown to reduce cortisol levels in stressed individuals. If you're not a big fan of sweets, try sipping some tea. Tea consumption may help lower cortisol levels and increase general feelings of relaxation.
- Add stress relief-supporting supplements to your diet. NatureWise Ashwagandha for Stress features a key ingredient called KSM-66® Ashwagandha that’s proven to help reduce stress and anxiety. Plus, the supplement even includes a blend of herbs and amino acids that can support a better balance of stress hormones in your body.
The Bottom Line: Stress Is Normal, But It Shouldn't Rule Your Life
Whether from job-related obstacles or personal life challenges, stress is a natural part of our lives. We can’t prevent ourselves from ever getting stressed, but remember this: we can manage the severity of its effects and aim to prevent long-term effects that stem from elevated stress levels. Happy relaxing!