You’ve probably heard before that stress can affect your physical health, but maybe you’ve questioned if it’s really true. Maybe you’ve wondered:
- Do people say this for attention?
- Do they exaggerate so you’ll take their stress more seriously?
- Are they hypochondriacs?
- Do they know something I don’t?
While I can’t answer these questions about your friends, family, or coworkers, I can tell you definitively that stress does affect the body.
Let’s take a closer look.
Stress often takes the form of physical systems like headaches and stomachaches, cognitive issues like trouble with memory and concentration, repressed sexual desire, and mood imbalance. When we take care to manage the stress in our lives, these conditions are temporary.
However, prolonged stress can be much more serious.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health and the American Psychological Association, chronic stress can affect the immune, cardiovascular, nervous, respiratory, muscular, digestive, endocrine, and reproductive systems. (If you’re into all the science-y details, I recommend this thorough review of the research.)
If you’ve ever heard someone claim they get more colds, more aches and pains, or more stomach bugs when they’re stressed, it’s probably not a figment of their imagination. Severe, prolonged stress can suppress the immune system. Have you heard the claim that stress can lead to heart disease? This, too, is not an exaggeration.
I hear you asking me, “Ok, Meredith, but WHY?”
I love the way Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski explain the body’s basic stress response in their book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. They use the example of being chased by a lion:
Epinephrine acts instantly to push blood into your muscles, glucocorticoids keep you going, and endorphins help you ignore how uncomfortable all of this is. Your heart beats faster, so your blood pumps harder, so your blood pressure increases and you breath more quickly […]. Your muscles tense; your sensitivity to pain diminishes; your attention is alert and vigilant, focusing on short-term, here-and-now thinking; your senses are heightened; your memory shifts to channel its functioning to the narrow band of experience and knowledge most immediately relevant to this stressor. Plus, to maximize your body’s efficiency in this state your other organ systems get de-prioritized: Your digestion slows down and your immune functioning shifts […]. Ditto growth and tissue repair, as well as reproductive functioning.
Whew! Is it any wonder, then, that chronic stress wreaks havoc on our physical health? I think we can see now that it is not.
In our next post we’ll tackle the obvious question: What can we do about it?
Want to talk? Reach out at Meredith@MeredithMDangel.com or 919-442-8546.
Not local and need a counselor? Try Psychology Today or Therapy Den to find your perfect match. If you need immediate help, please call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline or text CONNECT to 741741.