If you’ve ever been late for work, had to give a speech, or just lived on planet earth, you’ve probably experienced stress in one form or another. This can trigger not only a mental response but a physical one too.
Did you know that at least 60% of all diseases attribute in some way to stress? Any type of stress can cause a chain reaction and create a chemical imbalance. Occasional stress can’t be avoided. However, when you’re constantly under pressure and have no way to cope, your risk of developing serious illness skyrockets.
While some stress and anxiety are actually healthy, long-term effects can do serious harm to your mental and physical health. Here’s what you need to know about the long-term effects of living a stressed-out life.
What happens to the body when it undergoes stress
The term ‘fight-or-flight‘ represents the choices that our ancient ancestors had when faced with danger. The response is triggered by the release of hormones that prepare your body to deal with a potential threat. This is also known as the ‘Caveman Brain’. It is hard-wired for us to assess dangerous situations and respond appropriately. The brain either tells us to fight or flee. In either case, the physiological and psychological response to stress prepares the body to react to the danger.
While this might have served us well when we shared our backyards with saber-tooth tigers, today it’s not needed as much. Since it’s instinctual, the brain often looks for situations that can be perceived as dangerous so it can protect us from harm. While we are not actually in danger of being eaten by a prehistoric tiger, our body doesn’t know that. This is why stress and anxiety can take on a very physical feeling at times.
The process happens like this:
- Alarm: Your brain receives a message that you’re being exposed to a potential threat.
- Brain trigger: Amygdala, the part of the brain concerned with decision-making and emotional responses, sends a message to the hypothalamus, which is responsible for hormone production.
- Hormone release: Adrenalin and cortisol, two stress hormones, get released into the blood.
- Body reaction: Cortisol boosts the blood sugar and adrenaline makes the heart beat faster and pump more blood, so muscles are supplied with extra oxygen.
- Your body then goes into fight or flight mode.
Three types of Stress
1. Eustress: This type of stress is fun and exciting. It’s known as a positive type of stress that can keep you energized. It’s essentially surges of adrenaline. You might experience this when sky diving or riding a roller coaster.
2. Acute stress: A very short-term type of stress that can be good or bad depending on the situation. This is the type we experience the most on a regular day.
3. Chronic stress: Stress that seems never-ending and inescapable. Like the stress of a bad relationship or a miserable work environment. Chronic stress can also stem from traumatic experiences such as PTSD. This is the one that has the most dangerous since it affects our long-term health.
How Stress Affects the Body
Most of the physical body is affected by stress, especially the organs. The main functions that are affected are the immune system and digestion, but they can manifest in many different places.
When we are stressed, our cortisol levels rise and this can compromise the functioning of the immune system. People who are under chronic stress have weaker immunity and are more susceptible to infections and viruses. This can be anything from a cold to a serious illness.
The hormones Adrenaline and Noradrenaline are also released, which raise the blood pressure. Not only that, but a rise in these hormones can really hurt the digestive system. The lowered blood also stops the body from absorbing nutrients. This means cutting down on the number of vitamins and minerals, mainly B vitamins and vitamin C.
Another major area of the body that suffers from stress is your skin. Ever notice that before a big date or event, a breakout always seems to happen? This is because it prompts inflammation and makes your hormones go crazy. This leads to a number of skin problems.
How Stress Affects the Brain
Major depression or chronic stress can cause the loss of brain volume, a condition that contributes to both emotional and cognitive impairment. A Yale University study showed that chronic stress can actually reduce brain volume and grey matter significantly.
Stress can also kill brain cells, particularly in the areas associated with memory and learning. When your brain perceives this, your body releases adrenaline into the bloodstream. After about one minute, the adrenaline leaves your brain and it returns to normal function. If this continues, steroidal hormones, called glucocorticoids remain in your brain and continue to impact its functioning.
Your body requires a hormonal balance to function properly. The balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic hormones is very delicate. Chronic stress can keep these hormones unbalanced. High levels of either type of hormone can kill cells in the hippocampus, hampering memory and learning.
Cortisol creates a surplus of the neurotransmitter glutamate. While glutamate is a necessary and important brain chemical, in excess it turns against your brain and becomes a neurotoxin. Glutamate creates free radicals — unattached oxygen molecules — that attack brain cells in much the same way that oxygen attacks metal, causing it to rust. Free radicals actually punch holes in brain cell walls, causing them to rupture and die. Stress also indirectly contributes to other lifestyle habits that create more free radicals.
If it causes you to lose sleep, eat junk food, or drink too much alcohol, or smoke to cope, know that these unhealthy habits are adding to your free radical load.
How to Reduce Stress
It is possible to reduce stress and improve brain health with 20 minutes of relaxation a day. Yoga, prayer, and meditation may actually turn off the genes that are activated by stress. Here are a few tips on how to reduce this from your life.
Eat antioxidant-rich foods
Stop free radical damage by eating a diet high in antioxidant-rich foods like fruits, vegetables, dark chocolate, and green tea.
Daily physical exercise boosts your brain function and is one of the biggest relievers of stress. Exercise doesn’t have to be strenuous. Even walking your dog for half an hour a day can have huge results, and if you don’t have a dog, consider adopting one! So exercise with a strong mind-body connection with yoga and pilates.
Meditation has amazing benefits when it comes to de-stressing the mind, it will help to melt the anxiety away and also improve your overall quality of life on so many levels. Start a daily meditation practice and watch the stress melt away!
Get high-quality sleep
Get plenty of restful sleep, it seems so simple but when our mind doesn’t get enough sleep, the rest of the body suffers. It’s during sleep that your brain repairs itself, and grows new brain cells.