Modern life is full of pressure, stress and frustration. Worrying about your job security, being overworked, driving in rush-hour traffic, arguing with your spouse – all these create stress. According to a recent survey by the American Psychology Association, fifty-four percent of Americans are concerned about the level of stress in their everyday lives and two-thirds of Americans say they are likely to seek help for stress.

You may feel physical stress as the result of too much to do, not enough sleep, a poor diet or the effects of an illness. Stress can also be mental: when you worry about money, a loved one’s illness, retirement, or experience an emotionally devastating event, such as the death of a spouse or being fired from work.

However, much of our stress comes from less dramatic everyday responsibilities. Obligations and pressures which are both physical and mental are not always obvious to us. In response to these daily strains your body automatically increases blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, metabolism, and blood flow to your muscles. This response is intended to help your body react quickly and effectively to a high-pressure situation.

The Stress Response

Often referred to as the “fight-or-flight” reaction, the stress response occurs automat
ically when you feel threatened.  Your body’s fight-or-flight reaction has strong biological roots.  It’s there for self-preservation. This reaction gave early humans the energy to fight aggressors or run from predators and was important to help the human species survive.  But today, instead of protecting you, it may have the opposite effect.  If you are constantly stressed you may actually be more vulnerable to life-threatening health problems.

Any sort of change in life can make you feel stressed, even good change.  It’s not just the change or event itself, but also how you react to it that matters.  What may be stressful is different for each person.  For example, one person may not feel stressed by retiring from work, while another may feel stressed.

How Stress Affects Your Body

In response to stress your body automatically increases blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, metabolism, and blood flow to your muscles. This response is intended to help your body react quickly and effectively to a high-pressure situation.

If stressful situations pile up one after another, your body has no chance to recover. This long-term activation of the stress-response system can disrupt almost all your body’s processes.  Some of the most common physical responses to chronic stress are experienced in the digestive system.  For example, stomach aches or diarrhea are very common when you’re stressed. This happens because stress hormones slow the release of stomach acid and the emptying of the stomach. The same hormones also stimulate the colon, which speeds the passage of its contents.

Chronic stress tends to dampen your immune system as well, making you more susceptible to colds and other infections. Typically, your immune system responds to infection by releasing several substances that cause inflammation.  Chronic systemic inflammation contributes to the development of many degenerative diseases.

Stress has been linked with the nervous system as well, since it can lead to depression, anxiety, panic attacks and dementia. Over time, the chronic release of cortisol can cause damage to several structures in the brain.  Excessive amounts of cortisol can also cause sleep disturbances and a loss of sex drive. The cardiovascular system is also affected by stress because there may be an  increase in both heart rate and blood pressure, which may lead to heart attacks or strokes.

Exactly how you react to a specific stressor may be completely different from anyone else.  Some people are naturally laid-back about almost everything, while others react strongly at the slightest hint of stress.  If you have had any of the following conditions, it may be a sign that you are suffering from stress: Anxiety, Insomnia, back pain, relationship problems, constipation, shortness of breath, depression, stiff neck, fatigue, upset stomach, and  weight gain or loss.

After decades of research, it is clear that the negative effects associated with stress are real.  Although you may not always be able to avoid stressful situations, there are a number of things that you can do to reduce the effect that stress has on your body.

Watch for our next Blog post to learn how to best help your stress!

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