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The Body’s SOS Calls Under Stress


The grip tightens on your pen, your heart hammers against your ribs, and your stomach gurgles a protest. These aren’t just nervous habits, they’re your body’s frantic SOS calls under the crushing weight of stress. But instead of ignoring these whispers, let’s decode them, understand their physiological symphony, and rewrite the narrative into one of resilience and calm.

The Effects of Stress on the Body, From Your Brain to Your Stomach

Stress happens when you’re introduced to a challenge or demand in life, resulting in physical or emotional tension.

Even though everyone experiences stress, it can still be harmful to your health if it occurs over a long period. Here are the ways stress can affect your health—and what you can do about it.

What Is Stress?

Stress is your emotional and physical reaction to a challenge or demand.2 If you’re in danger, the brain sends triggers—both chemical and along the nerves—to the adrenals, which are glands that sit on top of each kidney. The adrenals then churn out hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, which can increase:34

  • Alertness
  • Blood pressure
  • Blood sugar
  • Breathing
  • Heart rate
  • Muscle tension
  • Sweating

Short-term, or acute, stress goes away quickly, such as when you argue with someone or are running from a house fire.

What Does Chronic Stress Do to Your Body?

Your stress is chronic if it’s constant and continues for weeks or even longer. When your stress lasts much longer, like when you’re having financial difficulties, your body continues to stay in an alert, reactive state, and this leads to psychological and physical symptoms.

Asthma Flare-Ups

Stress and strong emotions are known asthma triggers. If you have asthma, it is possible that these emotions and stress will worsen your symptoms. This is because stress affects your breathing—even if you don’t have asthma. Your muscles may tighten up, and your breathing rate can increase.

Mindful breathing can help reduce stress. If you want to try mindful breathing, here are the steps:

  1. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth slowly.
  2. Inhale for seven seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds, then breathe out for seven seconds.
  3. Focus on your breathing, and let go of other thoughts.
  4. Repeat this three times.

Gastrointestinal Troubles

When you are stressed or anxious, the released hormones can interfere with digestion which can cause a number of gastrointestinal (GI) issues like:

  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Indigestion
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Peptic ulcers
  • Stomach cramping

In particular, irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, which is characterized by pain and bouts of constipation and diarrhea is thought to be fueled in part by stress.

Hair Loss

Hair loss can occur after a stressful time in your life. Whether it’s a divorce or the death of a loved one, your hair may fall out due to stress. When the stress has subsided, your hair will stop shedding. It may take anywhere from six to nine months for your hair to regrow to its normal volume.

Stress and anxiety can also contribute to a disorder called trichotillomania, in which people pull their hair out repeatedly. People who have this condition often report that they experience stress before pulling out their hair. Treatment for trichotillomania may include medication, cognitive behavioral therapy, and habit reversal training—identifying habits and working to change them through awareness and social support.

Heart Problems

Your body’s initial cardiovascular response to stress is an increase in heart rate. Continued stress raises your blood pressure by increasing the constriction of the blood vessels. This raises your risk of cardiovascular problems like hypertension, high cholesterol, and heart attacks.

For instance, many people are stressed because of work—10% to 40% of people who are employed experience work-related stress, and 33% of these people experience severe chronic stress. People who experience stress from work are more likely to develop cardiovascular disease.

People with a high-stress job have a 22% higher risk of stroke than those with low-stress jobs. High-stress jobs are defined as jobs that are psychologically demanding—mental load, coordination burdens, and time pressure. Additionally, people experience stress when they have less control over their jobs and how hard they are expected to work.

Certain behaviors and factors can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. Stress can lead a person to engage in these behaviors, such as:

  • Lack of physical activity
  • Not taking medications as prescribed
  • Overeating
  • Smoking
  • Unhealthy diet

Chronic stress can have a negative impact on mental health and high blood pressure, both of which are factors that can lead to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.

To avoid heart problems related to stress, try a heart-healthy lifestyle that can include:

  • Eating less salt, saturated fat, and added sugar
  • Eating a plant-based diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
  • Getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise every week
  • Quitting smoking if you’re a smoker
  • Substituting water for sugary drinks

Try to reduce stress in your life by identifying the sources of stress and working on solutions to manage them, whether that means taking time off from work when needed or spending more time with your family or friends. You can also practice mindfulness and meditation.

February 1, 2024

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