Here’s how your body responds to prolonged stress
Post-COVID there has been a 25% spike in the prevalence of world anxiety and depression, according to the World Health Organisation. Our generation is undeniably more stressed than ever.
We all experience stress on a daily basis, so much so that it has become difficult to imagine life without a little sprinkle of stress. Some of us get through it just fine whereas, for some, it can be a miserable whirlwind.
Stress comes and goes like every other feeling in your body, but its over-stretched stay can lead to multiple health consequences.
Managing stress is a skill to be learned and it may take a lot of time and patience.
Today we’ll start off with understanding our common foe, stress, a little better, so that you can protect yourself the next time it strikes an attack.
What Is Stress?
Stress is what you feel when you experience physical or emotional tension, says the National Institute of Health. It is a physical and psychological response to threats that can be either real or imagined.
Stress can be caused by a variety of factors, including work, relationships, financial problems, health issues, and major life changes. It can manifest in a range of symptoms, including headaches, muscle tension, fatigue, anxiety, and depression.
Can Stress Be Good?
Yes, in fact, it is a very natural and normal reaction that is necessary for us to cope with challenging situations.
You may have noticed a rush of energy when closing in on a deadline. In this case, stress helps you stay alert and improve your work efficiency so that you can deliver on time.
In another example, stress gives you the reflexes to run away from or fight a person approaching to attack you.
But when stress becomes chronic or overwhelming, it can lead to negative effects on our physical and mental health.
Unfortunately, many people live with chronic stress without even realizing it as it slowly becomes more severe. Understanding the types of stress is a critical step in managing it and maintaining overall well-being.
Types Of Stress
Recent research by Delhi University identifies mainly 10 types of stress that individuals may experience:
- Acute stress – It is short-term stress that happens quickly and has a fast impact on our mental balance. It happens in real situations like touching a hot pan, slamming on brakes when something comes ahead, heated arguments, watching horror movies, etc.
- Chronic stress – It is long-lasting stress that stays for a longer period of time from a week to months or longer. You may have chronic stress in real situations like going through a rough patch, the death of a loved one, failed relationships, trouble at work, etc.
Since this type of stress lasts for a long time, people tend to get used to high levels of stress on a daily basis without even realising it is a problem.
- Episodic acute stress – This is the same as acute stress but is experienced more frequently. It can manifest in the form of anxiety pangs when you think about future events. It comes from a form of imagined threat that may or may not happen.
- Emotional stress – This type of stress happens when we face difficulties in our relationships with our friends, family members, or colleagues when there is a lack of trust, communication, and mutual understanding.
- Battling Burnout – Individuals may experience this type of stress when juggling different roles and responsibilities at a time at the cost of mental and physical rest. It may feel like things are getting out of hand and you are incapable of handling it. It is highly common among working professionals.
- Physical stress – It happens when you neglect your physical health, do not eat well, have a disturbed sleep schedule, go through an injury or disease, are dehydrated, etc.
Physical stress eventually impacts your emotional health.
- Psychological stress – This type of stress inflicts you when you have to go through bouts of depression, anger, irritation, rivalry, jealousy, insult, frustration, etc. It impacts your cognitive thinking and results in poor decision-making skills.
- Psycho-social stress – We social creatures who must interact within the community to sustain ourselves. In a way, we are dependent on each other. When there is a lack of mutual support, cooperation, and helpfulness, a sense of alienation isolates us from the people we are otherwise very close with. This manifests itself in the form of psycho-social stress.
- Psycho-spiritual stress – It occurs when our core beliefs, norms, values, and ethics are challenged. It shakes the foundations of our spiritual being and puts us in a state of doubt.
- Eustress – It is a good type of stress. When our good actions and behaviours are rewarded, we are motivated to do more of those things. Hence, we face the coming challenges with enthusiasm and energy, which is the result of eustress.
How Stress Impacts Your Hormones
When stress happens, it triggers the release of several hormones in the body, including adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine, says NIH. These hormones prepare the body for the “fight or flight” response, which is the body’s way of responding to a perceived threat.
- Adrenaline is released from the adrenal glands and causes an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration, preparing the body for physical action.
- Cortisol is released by the adrenal glands to help prepare the body for stress by increasing blood sugar levels and suppressing the immune system.
- Norepinephrine is released by the sympathetic nervous system to help increase alertness and focus.
In addition to these hormones, stress also activates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is a complex system of interactions between the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands.
All of these chemical changes help to prepare the body to respond to stress, but if the stress response is prolonged or chronic, it can have negative effects on both physical and mental health. It can lead to hormonal imbalance and cause the deterioration of health.
To prevent stress from going unnoticed and to be able to manage it in time, it is important to recognize its first signs and symptoms.
Impact Of Prolonged Stress On Your Health
Stress can mess up your hormonal cycle in multiple ways. The hormonal cycle is controlled by the endocrine system. It is a complex system of glands that secrete hormones. Stress affects the endocrine system by changing the balance of hormones that are produced and released.
One primary hormone to be affected by stress is cortisol. People who are stressed most of the time have high cortisol levels. This suppresses the production of other hormones such as estrogen and progesterone and can lead to irregular menstrual cycles or even the cessation of menstruation altogether which may result in polycystic ovarian syndrome.
In high-stress situations, you are always alert. This constant state of alertness is not healthy for your body and mind and can lead to elevated blood pressure (hypertension) which increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases.
Long-time stress and chronically elevated cortisol levels, can also cause insulin resistance and ultimately lead to type 2 diabetes.
Prolonged change in hormones changes your physical and mental health, and how you feel about yourself and others. Undiagnosed and mismanaged stress can jeopardize your health and personal and professional relationships. It soon becomes a normal response for your body to stay stressed whenever even a minor inconvenience arises.
It brings us to one question, “How to know if I am stressed?” Read on to identify the telltale signs of stress.
9 Signs Of Physical And Emotional Stress
Your health, both physical and mental, is managed by chemical messengers called hormones. Stress can disturb your hormone production and lead to miscommunication between your brain and the body.
The most common signs of stress are
- Difficulty sleeping: If you find yourself tossing and turning at night, waking up frequently, or fatigued even after a full night’s sleep, stress may be the culprit. Stress is the main cause of insomnia, with 49% of people suffering from it.
- Physical pain: Chronic stress can cause physical symptoms such as headaches, muscle tension, and stomach pain. If you have been experiencing unexplained physical pain, it may be a sign that you are under a great deal of stress.
- Mood swings: One moment you are happy, next you are crying or suddenly angry at what your partner said or did. Stress affects your mood, causing you to feel irritable, anxious, or depressed. You may snap at loved ones or coworkers or feel overwhelmed by even small tasks.
- Changes in appetite: Stress can affect your appetite, causing you to either overeat or under-eat. If you find yourself reaching for junk food or skipping meals, it may be a sign that you are under a lot of stress.
- Difficulty concentrating: Chronic stress can also make it difficult to concentrate and focus on tasks. You may find yourself easily distracted or forgetful, which can make it challenging to complete work or study.
- Increased alcohol or drug use: If you find yourself turning to alcohol or drugs to cope with stress, it is a sign that you are likely under a great deal of stress. Unfortunately, substance use can further exacerbate the negative effects of stress on the body and mind.
- Decreased libido: Stress can also affect your sex drive, causing you to feel less interested in sex. This can put a strain on your relationships and further increase your stress levels.
- Clenching jaw: Bruxism or jaw clenching could be a sign of emotional and psychological stress.
- Nightmares: When you constantly have nightmares, it is a way of your subconscious mind signalling towards one or more stressors that require to be addressed.
Some other symptoms of stress are –
- Feeling low all the time
- Increased heart rate
- Disturbed digestion
- Having frequent negative thoughts about oneself and others
- Sweaty palms
- Frequent urination
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms and if this is impacting the quality of your life, you should speak with a healthcare professional who can provide you with personalized advice and support.
- Stress is a natural and normal response to challenges and threats, but chronic or overwhelming stress can have negative effects on our physical and mental health.
- There are different types of stress, including acute, chronic, emotional, physical, psychological, and more.
- Stress triggers the release of hormones like adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine, which prepare the body for the “fight or flight” response.
- Managing stress is a skill that can be learned over time, and it is essential for maintaining overall well-being.
- Finally, it is important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of stress and seek professional help if necessary.
What is the first step to handling stress?
After realizing that you have been stressed, the first step is to try to relax. Take deep breaths and try to identify the cause of your stress. Once identified you can figure out a plan to manage it. You can ask for help from those you trust or a health professional.
What are some questions to ask about stress?
- Why am I stressed?
- Is my stressor real or perceived?
- Can I do anything about it?
- What is the first thing that I can do to help myself?
What is an effective method to manage stress and its effects?
Deep breathing, guided meditation, yoga nidra, a well-balanced diet, journaling, and listening to music are some easy and effective techniques to manage stress and reduce its adverse impacts on health.