Do you hear that? It’s your alarm clock going off and reminding you it’s Monday morning and time to wake up after a relaxing weekend. Before it hits you, there’s a moment of relaxation until it all hits you—the week is here yet again. That feeling of peace is immediately followed by stress, remembering the deadlines you have to meet this week, meetings, and anything else going on. The tension and dread follow you around as you get ready to leave, making breakfast for yourself and others if you don’t live alone. Although these feelings of stress, which can lead to anxiety, are relatively normal, they are still wreaking havoc on your body.
Anxiety is considered the most common mental illness in the United States. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), an estimated 40 million adults over age 18 struggle with the condition, equating to a staggering 18.1 percent of the entire U.S. adult population. Despite its treatability, only 36.9 percent of people with anxiety will seek help, making them three to five times more likely to be hospitalized for psychiatric disorders than those who don’t have anxiety disorders. Unfortunately, the condition stems from a complex set of risk factors, including brain chemistry, genetics, personality, and life events.
Dealing with stress and anxiety is a common part of our lives. For example, if your boss is piling on the work when you have strict deadlines, it could add stress to your life. Or, if you’re in school and about to take finals, you’ll start feeling the anxiety that you haven’t studied enough and that you might fail. Professional or educational lives aside, stress and anxiety can also consume our personal lives. If you recently met someone and you’re about to go on a first date, you’ll likely be anxious before and during the date. You might wonder if you’re saying the right thing if the person is judging you and how it went. We’d question you if you didn’t experience some stress or anxiety for a big event.
So, we’ve established that a little bit of stress and anxiety is normal in life. However, it begs the question: when does it become a problem? When do the effects of anxiety and stress negatively impact our lives and our bodies? Well, stress levels among adults have reached their highest levels recently, particularly during the global pandemic. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), 84 percent of adults reported feeling at least one emotion associated with prolonged stress in the previous two weeks. The most common were feelings of anxiety (47 percent), sadness (44 percent), and anger (39 percent). In addition, two in three adults said the number of issues facing the country is overwhelming.
Those experiencing stress in the short term shouldn’t worry about adverse effects on their bodies. However, the longer you battle stress, the more damage you can sustain. The United Brain Association considers stress the silent killer because of how it could harm your physical health. Prolonged exposure to stress can literally make you sick, and its effects can be life-threatening without adequate treatment. For that reason, learning some stress-preventing techniques and speaking to a professional is vital to your health.
Now, all of this isn’t meant to scare you or make you feel stress or more stress. It’s to make you aware of the damage it can cause and help you make a conscious decision to find ways to treat it. Let’s take a look at the negative effects of stress and anxiety on the body.
The Mechanism of Stress
The body’s reaction to stress is natural and has evolved dramatically over time to help keep you safe. In humans, the physical response to a potential threat is designed to allow your body to get ready and defend itself in a dangerous situation.
The stress response causes a reaction in the part of our brain responsible for decision-making. It then decides whether it’s a threat, which then alerts the hypothalamus if it is. The hypothalamus sends signals to the rest of your body through the hormone called epinephrine to trigger “fight or flight.”
The hormonal signals cause a change in the body that includes rapid breathing, increased blood pressure, widening of vital blood vessels, and the release of glucose into the bloodstream. The changes increase the flow of oxygen to your muscles to sharpen your senses. As a short-term reaction to danger, this stress response is extremely valuable.
However, we’re prone to perceiving low-level threats in conventional situations over a prolonged period that could harm our bodies. Financial strain, problems at work, or disagreements with your significant other can trigger this stress response and keep it going for weeks, months, and in some cases, years at a time, which slowly breaks down your body.
What Are the Symptoms of Stress in the Body?
Stress has the ability to affect all areas of your life, including how you behave, your emotions, how you think, and even worse, your physical well-being. Not a single part of your body is immune. However, since everyone handles stress differently, the symptoms will vary. While some people internalize their symptoms, others have more outward symptoms. Some symptoms can be vague and mimic those caused by specific medical conditions. For that reason, it’s essential to discuss your symptoms with a doctor. If you’re battling stress, you might experience a variation of the following symptoms.
If you’re someone who exhibits emotional symptoms of stress, you likely show the following:
- You’ll easily become moody, agitated, or frustrated.
- You’ll always feel overwhelmed. It’ll feel as though you’re losing control of your life or need to take control.
- You find it extremely challenging to relax or quiet your mind. You’ll always be on the go and thinking.
- Those with emotional stress symptoms feel bad about themselves and have low self-esteem. They also feel worthless, have higher rates of depression, and are lonely.
- You often avoid others because of social anxiety, or you can’t muster up the ability to talk with others.
While some people will exhibit emotional symptoms of stress, others may be outward physically with theirs. If you’re someone who is more physical, look for the following:
- You often have headaches and don’t know where they stem from.
- Although you got a full eight hours of sleep, you’re zapped of your energy.
- You constantly deal with an upset stomach, including constipation, diarrhea, or nausea.
- Someone with physical stress will complain about aches, pains, and tense muscles, even if they’ve done nothing physical to hurt their muscles.
- Rapid heartbeat and chest pains.
- An inability to fall asleep. You may sometimes have severe insomnia that keeps you awake for days.
- You’re constantly sick or battling infections.
- You lose your will to be sexual with your partner, or you’re unable to have sex.
- Constant nervousness or shaking, cold or sweaty hands and feet, ringing in your ear, which is known as tinnitus.
- Difficulty swallowing or dry mouth.
- Grinding your teeth or clenching your jaw.
While some people will exhibit physical symptoms, and others emotional, some may show a combination of both. We’re all different in how we battle stress, and we all show it in different ways. That means for others, their symptoms could be more cognitive and include the following:
- You’re in a constant state of worry, even if there are no external stimuli.
- Racing thoughts, which keep you from sleeping and enjoying life.
- The stress causes you to be disorganized and forgetful, which can be devastating at work if you’re trying to meet deadlines.
- Those with cognitive stress symptoms are unable to focus. In some cases, it could be diagnosed as ADHD. For this reason, you need to see a doctor.
- Stress can cloud your judgment, leading to poor decision-making and bad choices.
- When someone is stressed and showing cognitive symptoms, they’ll only see the negative side of things and be extremely pessimistic.
Behavioral symptoms of stress are also common in those battling the condition. These include the following:
- Procrastination and avoiding responsibility is a sign of behavioral stress.
- If you notice a change in your appetite, including not eating or eating too much, it’s a sign stress is getting to you.
- Many people battling stress will self-medicate with alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes. If you notice your intake increasing, it could be a sign of your stress.
- You exhibit nervous behaviors, including panic, fidgeting, or nail-biting.
What Are the Consequences of Long-Term Stress?
As we’ve mentioned, dealing with stress is natural. Little bits of it here and there aren’t anything to be concerned about. However, ongoing, chronic stress can either lead to or worsen many severe health problems. You must speak with your doctor to determine what can be done to get your stress levels under control. Some of the most common health problems stress can cause in your life include the following:
- Serious mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, and personality disorders.
- Cardiovascular disease, including high blood pressure, heart disease, heart attacks, stroke, and abnormal heart rhythms.
- In women, stress can cause menstrual problems, such as missed periods.
- Long-term stress can lead to “stress-eating,” which can lead to obesity.
- Both men and women can experience sexual issues, such as a loss of sexual desire. However, men can become impotent or prematurely ejaculate.
- Stress can cause skin and hair problems, including eczema, acne, psoriasis, and permanent hair loss.
- Stress can also lead to gastrointestinal issues, including ulcerative colitis, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), gastritis, and irritable colon.
Stress and Your Brain
Not only is chronic stress taxing to the body, but it can significantly affect your mind as well. Stress paves the way for mental and emotional conditions, and it can also impair your cognitive functions because of the changes it makes to the structure of your brain. Some of the brain-related effects of stress include the following:
- Memory problems: Chronic stress causes your hippocampus and amygdala to be less efficient and unable to produce new nerve tissue. It can also reduce the size of your hippocampus, which can lead to decreased verbal and spatial memory abilities.
- Learning problems: The changes in your hippocampus and amygdala may result in decreased decision-making and processing abilities that we discussed above. It can also cause challenges in how you learn and increase the odds of developing behavioral and mood disorders.
Stress and anxiety cause rapid and shallow breathing. If you have a pre-existing condition like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), you’re at an increased risk of being hospitalized from an anxiety-related complication. Stress can also make your asthma symptoms more severe. You must speak to a doctor to determine what can be done to manage your stress and any respiratory issues you might have.
Central Nervous System Problems
Long-term stress and anxiety will cause your brain to release stress hormones regularly, which increases the frequency of dizziness, headaches, and depression. Stress is often misdiagnosed, and doctors may assume it’s another condition. For that reason, you must be up front and tell them what’s going on in your life and if you’re unusually stressed. You want a proper diagnosis.
When you’re feeling stressed out or anxious, your brain floods the nervous system with chemicals and hormones designed to assist you in responding to a threat. Cortisol and adrenaline are two examples of this.
Although this response is vital in the event of an emergency, continuous exposure to these hormones causes more harm than good. Your long-term physical health is in jeopardy if you receive a steady dose of these hormones, and prolonged exposure to cortisol can lead to weight gain caused by stress-eating.
Stress and anxiety disorders can cause palpitations, rapid heart rate, and chest pain. Your odds of developing high blood pressure and heart disease also increase dramatically. If you already have any heart-related issues, an anxiety disorder could raise the risk of coronary events.
Excretory and Digestive System Problems
Stress and anxiety will also affect your digestive and excretory systems. It can lead to nausea, diarrhea, stomach cramping, and a host of other digestive issues. While some people overeat because of stress, some lose their appetite, leading to weight loss and other problems like malnourishment or dehydration.
There might also be a connection between anxiety disorders and developing a condition known as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) after a bowel infection. IBS can induce diarrhea, vomiting, and constipation. Without treatment, it can become severe. Again, speak with your doctor about any recent stress in your life that is potentially causing these symptoms.
Immune System Problems
Since anxiety triggers your fight-or-flight response and releases chemicals and hormones in your body, putting your body through this long-term means, it’ll never get the signal to return to normal functioning. For this reason, it can weaken your immune system. This can cause you to become vulnerable to infections and frequent illnesses. Those with anxiety problems will also cause vaccines not to work.
How Is Stress Diagnosed?
When it comes to the topic of stress, it’s rather subjective. It can’t be measured with tests, so how can you diagnose such a thing? Well, only the person experiencing stress can determine its presence and severity. A healthcare provider will likely use a questionnaire to understand your stress and its effect on your life. For example, if you’re battling anything we’ve discussed above, it could be an actual medical condition. You should ask your doctor if certain testing is necessary to determine if it’s stress or other medical problems.
If you have chronic stress, your primary care physician will evaluate your symptoms. Strategies for stress relief may not be as simple as taking medication. Benzodiazepines, which are commonly used to treat anxiety, are addictive and can lead to a substance use disorder, only causing more problems in your life. For that reason, finding natural ways to relieve stress is important.
Strategies for Natural Stress Relief
Unfortunately, stress is unavoidable. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t stop it from overwhelming your life. The following are some daily strategies you can implement into your routine to help you cope with stress. With a significant portion of the population battling stress right now based on the current state of affairs, knowing these can help you find peace.
- Exercise: Starting a regimen of exercise will do a lot for you, including increased confidence, help you sleep better, feel better overall, and most importantly, reduce the symptoms of stress. When you feel stress coming on, try to go for a short walk and take deep breaths. By doing this, it can help calm you down and get you past a potential anxiety attack. However, by trying to go to the gym regularly and making this part of your daily routine, it will reduce your stress overall and make you a happier person.
- Reflecting on your day: Although 24 hours in a day isn’t enough, our days are still too short. It may not seem like it at the moment, but they pass us by way too fast. For that reason, at the end of each day, it’s important that you take a moment to reflect on your day and think about what you’ve been able to accomplish in your time awake. Even if it doesn’t seem like a lot, take solace at the fact that you could get things done and make a difference. This reflection can help you stay present at the moment.
- Setting goals: One of the best things you can do for yourself is to set goals. Not only will it help you reduce stress, but it can also help you succeed in life. Make sure to set goals for your days, weeks, and months. Once you narrow your view, it’ll help you become more in control of the moment. When you’re in control of your own destiny, you’ll have time to complete your tasks and reduce stress.
Speak to a therapist or medical professional: Never overlook the advantages of speaking to a therapist or another medical professional. Although there has been a stigma attached to getting a therapist or reaching out for help, it’s something that can dramatically change your life. Not only can this help reduce your stress, but speaking to a therapist will change your life. They can provide you with help to change your thoughts, take control of your life, implement new routines, and speak to you about anything that’s causing your grief. If you’ve exhausted all other resources, visiting a therapist once or twice a week may be the missing link in your life. Pick up the phone today and reach out for professional help.