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From Head to Toe: Understanding the Physical Effects of Stress

Stress and anxiety are part of the life of almost every human being. We routinely experience worrying stemming from familial issues, professional responsibilities, health concerns, or any situation life throws our way. Dealing with constant stimuli and expectations in our changing environment makes it tough to stay calm.

In moderation, stress can be useful. In crucial moments, cortisol, the main stress hormone, prepares us for a fight-or-flight response. Adrenaline kicks in, boosting the heart rate, raising blood pressure, tensing muscles, and sharpening our focus on the immediate challenge.

However, chronic stress is harmful. It significantly increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and other chronic conditions. It also leads to issues like tension headaches, sexual dysfunction, and hair loss, affecting mental well-being.

Extended stress periods can result in psychological disorders affecting both physical and mental health, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Let’s explore how prolonged stress negatively impacts the body.

What is stress anyway?

Before we dive deep into the subject, let’s take a moment to define the term. As per the World Health Organization (WHO), stress is the orchestra of physiological reactions orchestrating our readiness for action. This sensation isn’t just normal; it’s adaptive. Like creatures tuned to the pulse of the wild, we must stay alert to any situation that might cast a shadow over our well-being.

Stress triggers, called stressors, can be single or multiple, everyday or biogenic. There are two main types of stress:

  • Acute stress: It is brief but impactful, a common part of life. It happens in risky situations, arguments, or exciting activities, not always linked to immediate danger. It’s a universal experience, adding intensity to our lives.
  • Chronic stress: It lingers for weeks, months, or even years. It stems from ongoing problems, imbalances, and enduring traumas, casting a prolonged shadow of discomfort.

Acute stress is normal, but chronic stress is a different ballgame. It’s linked to serious clinical conditions like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and social anxiety disorder. Surprisingly, over 30% of the population deals with one of these conditions at some point in their lives.

Effects of Stress on the Body

A. Musculoskeletal disorders

Muscles tense when we are stressed. If this sensation lasts over time, the muscle tissue remains tense, which can lead to nonspecific pain and other conditions, such as the following:

  • Headache: Most headaches result from tension in neck and scalp muscles, known as tension headaches, affecting over 70% of specific populations.
  • Low back pain: Stress significantly raises the risk of back pain. Focusing on and worrying about the discomfort can make it feel even worse.
  • Fibromyalgia: This disorder involves abnormal pain perception, causing widespread discomfort in the body’s soft tissues. It’s linked to various psychiatric disorders, with a significant stress component.
  • Contractures: Contractures are involuntary muscle contractions. If the muscle becomes hard or inflamed, it causes pain. Stress-induced muscle tension contributes to this type of injury.

B. Hypertension and other cardiovascular problems

Stress hormones increase blood pressure and heart rate, preparing the body for danger by sending more blood to organs, causing temporary spikes in hypertension.

Anxiety and stress are not long-term triggers for hypertension. Factors like overweight, lack of physical activity, aging, smoking, alcoholism, and family history play a more decisive role in explaining this condition.

Extended stress and anxiety can contribute to heart problems, including atrial fibrillation. Other cardiac disorders may also increase or worsen under stress.

C. Gastrointestinal disorders

The gut and nervous system are closely connected through the gut-brain axis. Emotional discomfort is quickly felt in the digestive system. Stress can trigger and worsen gastrointestinal diseases, affecting about 20% of the Spanish population.

Some of the gastrointestinal symptoms associated with stress and anxiety are the following:

  • Retching and nausea
  • Dry mouth
  • Abdominal pain
  • Swelling and gas accumulation
  • Heavy digestion
  • Acidity and heartburn
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea

Chronic stress worsens symptoms of existing disorders like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and can trigger flares in conditions such as Crohn’s disease. Stress impacts the whole body, with a notable effect on the gastrointestinal system. This prolonged sensation can also harm the body and mind in many other ways, such as:

  • Continued fatigue.
  • Predisposition to suffer depression and anxiety.
  • Insomnia.
  • Irritability.
  • Tendency to addictions.
  • Lack of libido and other sexual problems.
  • Bad memory.
  • Reduced job performance.

Get Moving to Manage Stress

If you have symptoms of stress, taking steps to manage your stress can have many health benefits. Explore stress management strategies, such as:

  • Do physical activity regularly.
  • Practice relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, meditation, yoga, tai chi, or massages
  • Keep your sense of humor
  • Spend time with family and friends
  • Make time for hobbies, like reading a book or listening to music
  • Try to find active ways to manage stress. Inactive ways to manage stress, such as watching TV, surfing the Internet, or playing video games, may seem relaxing, but they can increase stress in the long term.

And make sure you get enough sleep and maintain a healthy, balanced diet. Avoid the use of tobacco, excess caffeine and alcohol, and the use of illegal substances.

Conclusion

Stress affects the whole body, causing issues from head to toe, including headaches, musculoskeletal disorders, cardiovascular problems, and gastrointestinal issues. Recognizing these connections highlights the importance of prioritizing stress management for overall health. Adopting effective coping strategies helps achieve a healthier, more resilient, and balanced life.

Resources

  1. APA.org: The American Psychological Association (APA) provides its website visitors with a wide range of information and resources related to psychology, including research, publications, educational materials, and information about the organization itself.
  2. Child Mind Institute: Child Mind Institute’s website, provides information about their healthcare services, facilities, medical professionals, patient resources, and more.
  3. NIMH: On the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) website, you can find a wealth of information related to mental health, research findings, treatment options, and resources for individuals, families, and healthcare professionals.

Helpful Links

If you or someone you know needs to talk to a professional, contact us now to schedule your initial virtual session. You can call us at 888-409-8976 or click HERE to schedule it online.

Take care and be open to the possibility of a brighter, more grateful tomorrow.

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