The Impact of Stress on the Body

By Lucy Gleysteen and Seth Lamming

From PHN Issue 39, Winter/Spring 2019

Everyone experiences stress. Sometimes stress can act to help push us through difficult situations. Not all stress is bad but when stress spirals out of control, it puts the body more at risk for developing serious illness. Stress is not something that is “just in your head,” because it can impact your body, emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Being able to recognize stress is one step in reducing its impact. This article will explain the impact of stress, and things you can do to reduce your stress levels.  

Stress Hormones

When you experience stress, your brain sends signals to your body to release stress hormones, which are chemical messengers that travel through your bloodstream and tell your organs to act in a certain way. These hormones are needed to help your body to adapt to changes, but we do not want them to be turned on all the time. The main stress hormones are cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine.

  • Epinephrine, also known as adrenaline, is very similar to norepinephrine. These hormones have a major effect on your heart and blood vessels. Have you ever gotten nervous and noticed your heart racing? That was epinephrine preparing your body for a stressful situation. Epinephrine and norepinephrine have a relationship with long-term stress hormones, such as cortisol. Cortisol helps epinephrine get made and helps norepinephrine make blood vessels narrower.  
  • Cortisol is an important long-term stress hormone. Once it is released, it takes longer to act on your body, but it also hangs around in your bloodstream longer too. Its major functions include helping your body use sugars properly and helping control your immune system. When you are exposed to stress for long periods of time, your cortisol levels are high and can impact different parts of your body.   

In addition to making you feel anxious or agitated, these stress hormones can have major health impacts if your body never gets a break from their effects. Over time, stress hormones can increase your blood pressure, increase your blood sugar, and more.

Mental Health

When stress is excessive or if your stress hormones are activated too frequently, it can have a big impact on mental health. Our bodies and minds can get used to stress, making us feel like we are constantly under threat. Even when there isn’t something happening, your body can still be producing stress hormones. At this point, stress is no longer serving to protect you through difficult situations. Stress creates many changes in mood and behavior. Some examples of this include difficulty sleeping, difficulty concentrating, being tearful, changes in sexual habits, irritability, excessive anger, panic, anxiety, easily being scared or startled, self-destructive behaviors, and feelings of guilt or shame.

Tips for Stress Reduction

  • Identifying your reactions to stressful situations by paying attention to shifts in your mind and body is a key part of stress reduction. This could include noticing tension in your shoulders or clenching fists. This could also include noticing racing thoughts. Ignoring stress when it is giving you physical or emotional warning signs will not make it go away.  
  • Identifying the underlying causes of stress will help you get a sense of the things that are bothering you and provide insight into what things you can address and what things are out of your control. For some of the challenging or upsetting things in your life, there might be a practical solution. For other things, there might not be a solution, but you can pay attention to how you are feeling and try to reduce its impact on your mind and body.
  • Finding support by talking to a friend, seeing a counselor, calling loved ones on the outside, or attending a support group.
  • Finding a relaxing activity. This could involve practicing meditation, going outside when possible, exercising, doing something creative, yoga, or reading.

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