It’s one of those things many of us have lots of, but really wish we didn’t. And many of us are so stressed we don’t even notice that we’re stressed until we reach a breaking point.
Like anxiety, stress is a biologically normal response created by complex chemical reactions and processes in our body in response to potentially harmful situations. And like anxiety, stress can actually be beneficial!
Just like your alarm clock alerts you that it’s time to wake up, your body sends signals to alert you to dangerous situations, like slamming on your car brakes so you don’t hit the car in front of you. Or working hard to finish that project by the deadline.
These responses are created by your body’s sympathetic system, aka, your “fight or flight” response. In small doses, your acute (or short-lived) “fight or flight” responses are important and even healthy for day-to-day living by helping us cope with the normal stresses of the day.
But what happens when stress changes from acute to chronic? Where you experience high levels of stress and anxiety every day with no break in between? Can stress make you sick?
Long story short:
When stress becomes chronic, it then becomes a problem.
The Biology of Stress
What exactly happens when we are under stress? Many of us are familiar with the physical symptoms, like a pounding heartbeat, sweaty palms, quickening breaths, and maybe even bulging veins.
But internally, there’s a whole lot going on.
During stressful times, the body sends out signals to increase hormonal production of epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine, and cortisol, aka, your stress hormones. It also creates signals to decrease hormones involved in digestion, reducing hunger signals.
Furthermore, your blood vessels dilate, increasing your blood pressure and the amount of blood rushing to your muscles and heart. Lastly, your muscles tend to contract and tense up, getting you ready to either fight or run.
(There are several more, complex chemical processes involved with stress, but these are the major ones).
Obviously, if you are getting ready to do something physical, like running a marathon, all of these biological responses are extremely helpful and necessary.
So why is a lot of stress harmful if it’s so necessary?
One key factor is cortisol, mentioned previously. We already know cortisol is a stress hormone.
But what is a stress hormone?
If you said, “A hormone released when you’re stressed,” you’re right!
While cortisol has many important roles in the body, it also has an interesting effect in that it decreases the immune system. It does this by preventingT cells (cells that fight infections and disease) from proliferating. This helps fight inflammation in the body. But then also hurts the immune system.
So the effects of cortisol are super helpful in some situations...and not so helpful in others.
Symptoms of Chronic Stress
We’ve all met that person whose blood pressure seems to be through the roof at all times.
Or that someone who is as stiff as board and has constant shoulder pain because of tense muscles.
Or that person that physically cannot stop moving because their heart rate is so high from thinking about all the things they have to do...
Those are common symptoms of chronic stress.
Maybe even you are that person sometimes.
It’s all too easy to think of personal situations where we’ve experienced chronic stress: working with a demanding boss, taking a tough class in school, or handling a rough family relationship at home.
But if you’re like me, and have experienced high amounts of stress for a long period of time, you know what happens in the end.
But why is that? Typically, it’s a combination of several factors, like loss of sleep, decrease in immunity due to high cortisol levels, decrease in memory, and more.
Furthermore, many factors are related to each other; so as one area gets worse, so does the other, creating a vicious cycle.
So what are the most common symptoms that you’re under a load of stress?
Here are the 5 top ways stress can hurt your health:
1. Stress can worsen depression symptoms
For those who have been clinically diagnosed with severe depression, chronic cortisol overproduction is a serious issue.
Based on evidence produced in Dr. Burke’s study, individuals with severe depression are more likely to have impaired stress recovery.
Essentially, after a stressful event, they are under the effects of stress longer compared to individuals without severe depression.
2. Stress can disturb your sleep
Evidence has found that a large amount of daily hassles plus lots of stress on a regular basis can decrease your quality of sleep.
In fact, insomnia is the most common sleep disorder and has many variables that play into it. For example, prescription drugs, environmental factors, illness, and more can disturb sleeping cycles.
So how does stress specifically influence sleep?
Based on research, it seems that high amounts of stress can disrupt sleep by creatinghyperarousal.
Hyperarousal refers to when your body suddenly kicks into “high gear” at night, making it difficult to fall asleep. Many people describe this sensation as having your brain on overdrive or having a million thoughts running through your head at once.
Going back to my first point (that stress can worsen depression), there is definitely a link in certain individuals between poor sleep quality and depression, making the situation even worse.
3. Chronic stress can increase the chance of diabetes, cancer, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease
In Dr. Dickerson’s study, she found similar evidence to Dr. Burke suggesting that high chronic cortisol levels can be harmful. Specifically, Dr. Dickerson’s study found that frequent stressful experiences can lead to an inability to “turn off” cortisol production. This leads to overexposure of stress hormones.
The prolonged exposure to cortisol is key in negative health implications.
4. Stress can worsen decision-making skills
Ever notice that when you’re under high amounts of stress, you tend to make decisions that you wouldn’t normally make?
Like getting excessively angry over a little mistake or overly sad when something doesn’t work out or excessively shopping online?
Even our eating habits can change when the stress is on... Do you know what I'm talking about?
Well, there’s actually a physiological reason for that.
Most of our primary decision-making skills form from responding to recurring scenarios over and over, which forms ahabit. This is especially true when the stress is on. Habits are our fallback automatic decisions, our tendencies we’ve created over time. We then rely on these habits (whether conscious or subconscious) to respond to difficult situations.
This is why it’s so essential to form good habits, especially early on.
That’s also why forming bad habits can be so detrimental, especially when it comes to our health.
5. Prolonged stress may affect memory
Research by The Rockefeller University suggests a link between chronic stress and memory loss.
Particularly, they found that prolonged stress (especially as a child) might have an impact on memory deficits as adults. Another study found that frequent stress could decrease dopamine production, a hormone vitally important for memory and emotional health. This can happen at any age, not just as a child.
Additionally, otherstudieshave found an inverse relationship between memory and cortisol levels. Specifically, cortisol increases memory consolidation but hinders memory retrieval. Neurological memory consolidation refers to turning a short term memory into a long term memory, but neurological memory retrieval focuses on recalling information. Unfortunately, cortisol only positively influences memory consolidation.
So there you have it, the 5 top ways stress can hurt your health! Don’t forget to take care of yourself and create opportunities to decompress and recover, your health depends on it.
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