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How Does Stress Affect the Body?

Stress doesn’t just affect us mentally. It also affects every system of the body, giving our bodies ways to communicate to us that they need a break. According to the American Psychological Association, our bodies can handle small doses of stress, but long-term stress can have detrimental effects on the body. Chronic stress can show itself in various ways in different bodily systems. Specifically, the respiratory, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, muscular, endocrine, and nervous.

Respiratory System

For the respiratory system, stress can present itself as shortness and rapid breathing. This is more commonly found with people who have pre-existing respiratory diseases. In times of acute stress, asthma attacks can also be triggers. When experiencing these symptoms, it is important to try and slow your breathing. Therapists recommend inhaling for shorter counts and exhaling for longer counts to try and get breathing under control. For example, breath in for four counts and exhale for six counts.

Cardiovascular System

Long-term stress can have lasting effects on the cardiovascular system. Stress causes your heart to beat faster, increases blood pressure, and increases the levels of stress hormones. If the body experiences these for long periods of time, it can be put at a higher risk for heart attack, stroke, or hypertension.

Gastrointestinal System

Stress and the gastrointestinal system are closely related since your stomach contains millions of neurons. Stress can trigger bloating, pain, and other ways of discomfort in your stomach. The bacteria in your stomach, which are impacted by stress levels, can also affect your mood and influence your ability to think.

Muscular System

If headaches are a common thing, it might be time to assess how much stress your body is under. When your body experiences stress, your muscles tighten, meaning the muscular system is another way your body can say that it needs a break from stress. An excessive amount of stress can lead to experiencing headaches and migraines due to the tension in your body. Lower back pain can also be associated with stress.

Endocrine System

The body’s endocrine glands release hormones into the bloodstream. When experiencing stress, the body releases the hormone cortisol. Producing cortisol throughout the day is normal, but if your body is releasing too much cortisol chronically, you’re put at a higher risk for developing various physical and mental health issues, such as chronic fatigue, immune disorders, metabolic disorders, and even depression.

Nervous System

Chronic stress causes the nervous system to continuously trigger physical reactions. This constant triggering can cause the body to feel drained despite getting adequate amounts of rest. The persistent activation of the nervous system affects other systems as well.

Ways to Manage Stress

Because mental health is so closely related to physical health, it is imperative to keep your brain as healthy as possible. One way to do this is to manage stress levels.

There are several steps you can take to help manage the stress in your life. The CDC recommends:

  • Eating healthy

  • Exercising

  • Getting an adequate amount of rest

  • Avoiding drugs and alcohol

  • Talking to someone

The American Heart Association also proposes trying some of these activities to help relieve the physical strain of stress:

  • Make art

  • Read

  • Play sports

  • Listen to music

  • Go on a walk

  • Meditate

Acknowledging the stress in your life and discovering ways that help relieve that stress will help keep your mind and body healthy. Small doses of stress are normal and are not problematic for the body. But if you or a loved one are experiencing increased amounts of stress, and maybe even noticing physical symptoms because of it, try one of the activities listed above, or reach out to a therapist. Group therapy or individual therapy can be very beneficial and can help find ways to manage stress that work for you.

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