Tuesday, December 12, 2023

The effects of chronic stress on your body

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Did you know the statistics on stress in 2022-23?

  • The number of stressed people out of 143 countries globally is 35%
  • That’s 20% lower than the percentage of Americans who have stress.
  • 51% of personal trainers feel no stress or anxiety at work.
  • 33% of people report feeling extreme stress.

Stress widely varies from person to person.

For example the common fear of public speaking can have one person trembling and feeling faint while another could be rambling in front of a crowd.

Whatever the telltale signs of stress may be, it’s important to recognise them in order to help yourself manage your stress and cope with it.

That’s why it’s important to be tuned in to your body.

Practices like yoga, meditation, spending time with yourself, journalling or even exercising can help you figure yourself out. It can be a struggle to address mental health issues but it is so important.

What is stress?

Stress encompasses the sensation of being overwhelmed by emotional or mental pressure, leading to both psychological and physical ramifications. Stress is the inability to cope with mental or emotional pressure.

Stress is a very common issue experienced by most people and to some degree it is considered to be a normal human reaction.

While stress is a natural human response to stressors and can even be considered positive but if it starts hindering your overall well being it needs to be addressed.

What happens to your body during stress?

Chronic stress activates your body’s fight-or-flight reaction. It impacts your mood, immune, digestive, nervous and cardiovascular systems. Prolonged stress often leads to wear and tear of the body due to the persistent activation of your body’s stress response. While stress is a natural response, prolonged stress can negatively affect you in the form of decreased energy, sleep disturbances and emotional changes. This poses risks to your overall health and well-being.

For example- If you’re sitting in traffic, watching time whizz by and you’re getting late for an important meeting, your hypothalamus, the tiny control centre in your brain, decides to rally the troops- your stress hormones! These stress hormones trigger your body’s “fight or flight” response. Your heart starts to race, your breath quickens,your palms and pits get sweaty and your whole body readies itself for action. This stress response was designed by your body to protect itself in case of emergency.

How long does stress last?

Stress can be a short-term issue or a long-term issue depending on what causes it and how you handle it.  Chronic or long term stress is what has negative effects on your body if left untreated. It can reduce your quality of life, physical and mental health.

Stress doesn’t always look stressful — Psychologist Connie Lillas uses a driving analogy to describe the three most common ways people respond when they’re overwhelmed by stress.

  1. Foot on the gas- An angry, agitated or “fight” stress response. You’re heated, overly emotional and unable to sit still.
  2. Foot on the brake- A withdrawn, depressed or “flight” stress response. You shut down and run away or pull away from the situation. You show very little energy or emotion.
  3. Foot on both- A tense or “freeze” stress response. You freeze under pressure and can’t do anything. Almost paralysed by the stress.

Severe stress can take shape in the form of physical symptoms. Here are the most common physical symptoms of stress:


  • Headaches- A headache is one of the most common telltale signs of being stressed. There are several types of headaches but the most common characteristics of it are pain in the head, face and neck region.
  • Sleep issues- Stress can often cause insomnia (inability to sleep), disturbed sleep or sleeping too much.
  • Decreased energy- Prolonged stress can often lead to chronic fatigue and low energy levels. Not getting enough sleep or disturbed sleep often leads to decreased energy during the day.
  • Changes in libido- Chronic stress often diminishes your sex drive. This can impact your arousal. Stress, alongside hormonal changes, fatigue and other psychological factors can alter your libido. Prolonged stress tends to lower the testosterone levels in a man which can lead to erectile issues. Prolonged stress in women can affect their menstrual cycles and menopause symptoms.
  • Acne- Too much stress can lead to severe bouts of acne. A common reason for this is because when you feel stressed out, you tend to touch their faces more than usual which spreads bacteria and germs. Stress also causes your sebaceous glands to produce extra oil which can lead to an increase in acne. Hormonal changes, an erratic diet and poor gut health along with stress can significantly increase acne.
  • Muscular tension- When you’re stressed, your muscles tense up as a protective instinct and release once you relax. However, if you are constantly under stress, your muscles may not get a chance to relax which can lead to muscle tension. Tight muscles can cause headaches, back pain, shoulder pain and body pain. Over time, this can lead to severe consequences like stopping to exercise and turning to pain medication for relief.
  • Chronic pain- Aches and pains are a common complaint among all age groups. But it can increase when you are stressed due to increased levels of cortisol.
  • Frequent sickness- If you feel like you’re constantly battling some illness or another, chances are you are stressed and that is the culprit. Stress may take a toll on your immune system and weaken it significantly.
  • Digestive issues- Stress can disrupt your gut-brain axis, thus impacting digestion and your overall gut health. The release of stress hormones can lead to gastrointestinal issues like bloating, constipation, diarrhoea, acidity, cramps, IBS, altered bowel patterns and other serious digestive issues. Maintaining a balanced lifestyle, eating healthy foods and managing your stress can promote a healthier gut.
  • Appetite changes and weight gain- Stress often affects your appetite, causing variations in eating patterns. It can lead to overeating or loss of appetite, both of which can negatively impact your weight and overall health. Individuals with higher cortisol and insulin levels and higher levels of chronic stress are more likely to gain weight in the future.

  • Chest pain or rapid heartbeat- Intense stress can trigger chest pain or discomfort due to an increased heart rate and constricted blood vessels. Feeling like your heart is racing is your body’s response to chronic stress which mimics symptoms of a heart attack. However if you are experiencing chest pain, it’s crucial to seek medical attention to rule out any serious issues.
  • High blood pressure- High blood pressure can be exacerbated by chronic stress, as stress triggers the release of hormones that narrow blood vessels and elevate heart rate. Prolonged stress can lead to hypertension. Managing your stress is important to prevent and control your blood pressure levels.
  • Sweating- Stress can lead to increased sweating, notably “psychological sweating,” triggered by stress and anxiety. This type of sweating is common on the face, palms, feet and underarms due to heightened stress responses.
  • Central nervous and endocrine system reactions- The central nervous system triggers the “fight or flight” response via the hypothalamus in your brain instructing your adrenal glands to release stress hormones, increasing your heart rate and directing blood flow to vital areas. If the exposure to stress persists, this response continues which can lead to behaviours like overeating, substance abuse and social withdrawal.
  • Low immunity- Stress initially boosts the immune system for immediate defence against a foreign body which helps in fighting off infections and healing wounds. However, chronic stress weakens your immunity, making you more prone to infections and even prolongs your recovery time from illnesses and injuries.

Treatment options for stress and its physical symptoms

In an ideal world, a single pill will take away all your stress. But in reality, there are so many contributors to stress that there is no one-size-fits-all treatment. Here are a few ways to keep stress at bay-

  • Talking with friends, a trusted advisor or a therapist- Talking to someone is always a great first step. They can help you figure out what is causing you so much stress and figure out ways to manage and treat it.
  • Taking breaks from the news, especially if it is all bad, is a good way to keep stress out.
  • Taking breaks from your devices (computer, phone, TV)
  • Adding nutrient-rich foods to your diet and avoiding excessive substance use like alcohol and drugs.
  • Exercising, even a short walk can boost your mood and relieve stress.
  • Practice gratitude. At the end of each day, take a moment to think about what you’ve accomplished and not what you didn’t get done. Look at the positives instead of the negatives.
  • Learn to say “no” if your plate is too full. Taking on additional responsibilities when you are too busy is a sure shot way to feel stressed and overwhelmed.
  • Set achievable goals for your day, week and month.
  • Try relaxation activities, such as meditation, yoga, breathing exercises and muscle relaxation. Taking breaks to allow your body to rest and reset is very important.
  • Take good care of your body. Eat right, exercise, get enough sleep. These simple practices can help your body handle stress much better.

If you feel overwhelmed from stress do not be afraid to ask for help.

Help is always available.

The bottom line —

Occasional stressful situations are part and parcel of life. Working through these events effectively and dealing with it head on is what keeps chronic stress at an arm’s length. Nip it in the bud!

Fortunately, there are many ways to help relieve stress, all you have to do is find what works the best for you.

Vinita Alvares Fernandes
Vinita Alvares Fernandes is an Economics graduate, a writer and a Trinity College certified public speaker and communicator

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