Stress is an inevitable part of life. We all experience varying levels of stress on a daily basis, from minor annoyances like traffic jams to major life events like the loss of a loved one. While a small amount of stress can actually be beneficial by motivating us into action, excessive or prolonged stress takes a major toll on our mental and physical health. In this article, we will explore the detrimental impacts of stress and discuss how it can contribute to serious health problems like heart disease.
What exactly is stress? It can be defined as the body’s reaction to harmful situations — whether they’re real or perceived. When we sense a threat, the body kicks into gear, flooding the blood with hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. This primes the body for action via the “fight-or-flight” response. Heart rate increases, breathing quickens, muscles tense up. While this can help us deal with an immediate crisis, chronic stress keeps the body perpetually wound up, leading to long-term consequences.
From an evolutionary standpoint, stress helped our ancestors survive immediate danger. But in today’s world, we are bombarded with stressful stimuli daily — the pressure of work deadlines, relationship conflicts, financial worries, and more. We rarely get to discharge the built-up tension through physical activity, as fighting or fleeing. So our elevated stress hormones wreak gradual havoc on the body and mind.
Stress contributes to many of the leading causes of death, including heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide. It also plays a role in a host of other health problems like infertility, sexual dysfunction, digestive issues, depression, insomnia, and more. Let’s examine some of the specific ways chronic stress can damage the body and brain over time.
First and foremost, stress has pronounced effects on the heart. It increases blood pressure and heart rate, constricting blood vessels and forcing the heart to work harder. This taxes the entire cardiovascular system and increases the likelihood of heart attacks, arrhythmias, and strokes. Stress can also indirectly affect the heart by promoting unhealthy coping behaviors like smoking, drinking excessively, or overeating comfort foods. These habits pose heart health risks of their own.
Chronic stress is also linked to increased inflammation in the body, which can worsen autoimmune and inflammatory disorders. Elevated cortisol from frequent stress suppresses the immune system, making you more susceptible to colds, the flu, and infections. The constant flood of adrenaline and cortisol also leads to elevated blood sugar, which increases your risk for insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome.
Furthermore, stress takes a toll on digestion by slowing or disrupting contractions in the intestines. This can trigger a whole host of GI issues like gastric ulcers, indigestion, diarrhea or constipation, and reduced nutrient absorption from food. The gut-brain connection is very real, with stress driving imbalances in the microbiome that regulate mood and behavior. This can result in worsening anxiety and depression.
High amounts of cortisol damage neurons in the brain’s hippocampus region, hampering memory and learning. This can reduce your ability to think clearly or retrieve information. Stress also shrinks the prefrontal cortex, the brain area responsible for focus, impulse control, decision making, and more. This impairs your judgment and performance on tasks. Chronic stress may even reduce the volume of gray matter in the brain over time.
Other noted impacts of long-term stress involve reproductive health. For women, stress may cause irregular menstrual cycles or stop menstruation altogether in a phenomenon called amenorrhea. It’s also linked to reduced libido and sexual satisfaction. In men, high cortisol curbs testosterone production, which can decrease sperm count and lead to erectile dysfunction. Stress can make couples less likely to conceive, and increase risk for miscarriage in women.
As you can see, chronic stress leaves no part of the body unscathed. It impairs normal functioning and primes us for serious health problems down the road. While we all deal with stress to some degree, it’s critical to manage it in healthy ways before it has damaging effects. Some tips include getting regular exercise, incorporating relaxing activities like meditation or yoga into your routine, setting aside time for hobbies, getting adequate sleep, developing your support network, and taking a break when you need it. Seeking professional therapy is also advised if stress becomes overwhelming.
In summary, stress wreaks havoc on the mind and body if left unchecked. Despite the evolutionary benefits of acute stress, chronic activation of the stress response places us at risk for heart disease, digestive troubles, infertility, depression, cognitive decline, suppressed immunity, and more. Prioritizing stress management can minimize these harmful impacts. While we cannot avoid stress altogether, we can reduce its intensity and frequency by establishing healthy coping strategies. Taking steps to curb stress today will pay dividends through improved health and wellbeing over our lifetime.