25 Surprising Ways Stress Affects Your Body
All the more reason to keep your cortisol levels in check.
Though you should never judge a book by its cover, there’s one assumption you can safely make about virtually everyone you meet: they’re dealing with stress in some form or another. When the American Psychological Association surveyed American adults about their anxiety levels in 2017, they found that a staggering 75 percent of those polled reported experiencing at least one symptom of stress in the past month alone. In fact, the APA’s 2017 findings revealed that stress in the United States was at an all-time high.
And while stress can take an undeniable toll on a person’s mental health, the repercussions of untreated stress are much greater than many people realize. Beyond messing with your mental state, stress has a surprising slew of harmful effects on your physical health, as well. Herein, we’ve rounded up some of the physical effects of stress that you’ll want to watch out for.
It raises your body temperature.
For some people—young women especially—highly stressful situations can actually cause a spike in body temperature known as a psychogenic fever. And oddly enough, research published in the journal Temperature found that these fevers are remedied not with run-of-the-mill anti-fever medications, but with anti-anxiety medications and therapy.
It contributes to weight gain and higher BMIs.
If you’re struggling with an ever-widening waistline, your stress levels might be at least partially to blame. When researchers at University College London tested the hair follicles of more than 2,500 subjects, they found that higher BMIs and larger waist circumferences were associated with higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that affects both metabolic rates and fat storage. Combined with the overeating that chronic stress can trigger, those cortisol levels basically ensure that anxious individuals cannot and will not lose weight.
It causes high blood pressure.
Surprisingly enough, psychological stress is more harmful to your heart in the longterm than physical stress alone. When researchers from the University of California at Irvine exposed students to either emotional or physical stress, they found that those who were stressed out emotionally had significantly higher systolic blood pressures. And not only did the stressful event itself cause a spike in blood pressure, recalling the stressful situation later triggered a physical reaction, as well.
It produces pimples.
No, those supposed “stress pimples” you’re seeing aren’t just in your head. According to one 2003 study published in the Archives of Dermatology, perceived stress levels are directly correlated with breakouts. When the study authors followed 22 university students, they found that the subjects’ acne was at its worst during exams—in other words, at a time when the students’ stress levels were highest.
It exacerbates allergic reactions.
If you suffer from particularly bad allergies, then you have all the more reason to get your anxiety levels under control. When Ohio State University researchers studied people with seasonal allergies, they found that even minuscule amounts of stress were enough to intensify a person’s allergic reaction during a prick test by as much as 75 percent.
It makes it harder to treat cancer.
Mental health is just as important as any medicine when it comes to treating cancer. Per one recent study published in Cancer Immunology Research, individuals suffering from chronic stress are less responsive to immunotherapies and thusly are not as effectively able to combat their cancer.
It makes it harder to conceive.
Going through the process of trying to have a baby is naturally anxiety-provoking, but dwelling on the stress of the matter is only going to make it harder for you to conceive. That’s according to one study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, which found that women with higher levels of stress are 13 percent less likely to conceive than those who don’t worry as much.
It disrupts your digestion.
You can stock up on fruits and veggies all you want, but so long as stress is part of your everyday life, your digestive system is going to be just as unhealthy as if you were digging into cheeseburgers and milkshakes every day. As one study published in Scientific Reports found, feeling overwhelmed and anxious can have a detrimental affect on your gut microbiota, the microorganisms that play a role in both digestion and metabolic health.
It impairs your memory.
When you become overwhelmed and overstimulated, all that anxiety takes a toll on the parts of your brain responsible for storing information. In fact, according to one meta-analysis published in the EXCLI Journal, some of the memory-related physical effects of stress include a reduction in spatial memory, a reduction in verbal memory, and the onset of explicit memory disorders.
It makes you more vulnerable to illnesses.
In a study published in the journal Immunology Today, researchers concluded that stress mediators are able to pass from the brain into the blood and negatively impact the immune system. Not only does this make it harder to fight off viruses and bacteria once they enter your body, it also renders your immune system more or less incapable of preventing infections and illnesses from occurring in the first place.
It limits the flow of blood to the heart.
Your heart is responsible for pumping oxygenated blood to all other parts of your body, making it arguably one of the most important organs that you have. And if you want to protect your precious organ at all costs, then you’ll want to stop stressing out about life’s little things. According to one study published in the journal Circulation, chronic life stress can cause myocardial ischemia, in which blood flow to the heart is reduced as a result of blocked arteries and your chances of having a heart attack are significantly increased.
It makes you more prone to injuries.
If you play an organized sport that relies on teamwork and cooperation, then the ongoing health of your muscles and bones relies on overcoming your anxiety. When Norwegian researchers followed a team of female soccer players over the course of a season, they found that perceived stress due to teammates and coaches was associated with greater risk of both acute injuries and overuse injuries.
It causes neck pain.
Your stress level can be a pain in your neck—literally. Research shows that there is a direct correlation between psychological stress and muscle tension, particularly in the neck and shoulder region. According to one study published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, scientists studied the pain patterns of cashiers and found that approximately 70 percent of them both suffered from stress and had severe neck and shoulder pain.
It prevents you from getting a full’s night sleep.
Stressed individuals often find themselves struggling to silence an influx of negative thoughts and feelings—and needless to say, this isn’t exactly conducive to getting a good night’s rest. In fact, when the American Psychological Association polled Americans about their sleeping and stress habits, they found that 40 percent of adults who regularly get fewer than eight hours of sleep every night reported increasing stress levels, compared to just 25 percent of adults who get the recommended eight hours.
It makes painful situations feel more painful.
Being in psychological pain makes it all that much more difficult to deal with the realities of physiological pain. In one study of 284 patients with chronic low back pain published in the journal Pain Medicine, scientists found that both anxiety and depression were associated with greater amounts of pain and more pain-related disabilities.
It exacerbates asthma.
The hyperventilating commonly associated with stress and anxiety can have a detrimental effect on the health of asthma sufferers. In one study from the University of Buffalo, researchers found that depressed children with asthma had imbalanced activity in their autonomic nervous system, which “could explain the increased airway resistance,” as study author Bruce D. Miller, M.D., explained in a press release.
It increases your risk for diabetes.
People who are vulnerable to diabetes need to watch their stress levels carefully. According to the American Psychological Association, the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine cause the liver to produce more glucose—and while most people can sufficiently reabsorb any excess blood sugar, people who are predisposed to diabetes have more trouble with this simple bodily function. If you’re not careful, all of that chronic stress can—and will—cause diabetes.
It worsens irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
“More and more clinical and experimental evidence showed that IBS is a combination of irritable bowel and irritable brain,” wrote the authors of one study published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology. Researchers believe that chronic stress impairs the gut microbiota, which in turn worsens the painful physiological symptoms of IBS.
It causes problems in the bathroom.
Those digestive issues plaguing you might not be the result of your diet alone. Even if you don’t have IBS, the changes in your gut microbiota caused by chronic stress can lead to other bathroom-related issues like diarrhea and constipation.
It causes erectile dysfunction.
Problems in the bedroom and untreated stress may be more interconnected than you think. “Anxiety is a well-known aetiological factor in the development of erectile dysfunction (ED),” notes one study published in the International Journal of Impotence Research. What’s more, many men who develop ED end up becoming even more stressed and depressed, which only serves to make the problem even worse.
It wreaks havoc on the menstrual cycle.
When your brain senses that you are feeling stressed or anxious, it releases cortisol and epinephrine into the bloodstream and triggers a “fight or flight” response in case you are in a crisis. One of the bodily functions that this affects is your menstrual cycle, as all that cortisol interacts with your hypothalamus and tells it that any non-essential functions—like menstruation—need to be halted during this supposed life-or-death situation.
It brings about migraines.
As the Cleveland Clinic notes on its website, “emotional stress is one of the most common causes of migraine headaches.” Evidently, the hormones released during the “fight or flight” response cause vascular changes and muscle tension, both of which can cause a migraine or make an existing one worse.
And tension headaches.
Stress and tension headaches are so closely intertwined that this common ailment is often referred to as a stress headache. According to the National Migraine Foundation, these anxiety-induced head pains occur in approximately three-fourths of the population, and stress is almost always the underlying cause.
You lose your libido.
Don’t expect to get hot and bothered so long as stress is being a third wheel in your relationship. When your body produces too much cortisol, it doesn’t have time to focus on the other hormones it should be making, including sex hormones like testosterone and estrogen, which control your sex drive.
It can lead to full-blown depression.
The occasional bout of social anxiety isn’t anything to worry about. However, if you’re suffering from chronic stress that never seems to subside, then you’ll want to seek help as soon as possible, or it could turn into full-blown depression. Not only is depression debilitating from an emotional standpoint, research shows that it can also lead to damaging physical conditions ranging from heart disease to obesity.
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