This Is What Happens to Your Body When You Experience Stress

Stress wreaks some serious havoc inside your body.

Back when humans relied on instincts and bodily responses to stay out of harm's way, stress was actually useful. But today, our bodies can't distinguish between real threats (being chased by a hungry wild beast) and false alarms (feeling overwhelmed by a deadline at work). That leaves many people suffering from chronic stress, which does more harm than good. And all that anxiety and tension can wreak havoc on you physically as well. If you're curious as to what's actually happening inside your body when you're feeling anxious and overwhelmed, keep reading to get the low-down from medical experts.

You lose sleep.

man awake in bed, signs you need a new mattress

When you're feeling stressed, your body secretes excess amounts of the hormone cortisol. The problem? This has an effect on your sleep/wake cycle and makes it harder to fall asleep. Those higher hormone levels can also put you at risk of insomnia if your stress persists.

Your blood sugar rises.

woman checking her blood sugar levels

When the body is under stress, it assumes that a life-threatening situation is underway. So, to prepare for a potential attack and provide the muscles with energy, it releases glucose into the bloodstream. However, those glucose reserves aren't actually needed for a mental threat.

What's more, a rise in cortisol makes it harder for insulin to do its job and convert that glucose into energy. As a result, blood sugar levels rise, and as osteopathic physician Joe Mercola notes on his website, they can take up to six times longer than usual to return back to normal. This is especially problematic for people with diabetes who need to make sure that their insulin levels are stable.

Your metabolism slows down.

Person on the scale checking their weight

When you're feeling particularly overwhelmed, it's best to keep the unhealthy snacks at bay. One 2016 study from Ohio State University found that when served a 930-calorie meal, women who reported being stressed the day before burned 104 fewer calories compared to their calm counterparts.

Why is this? Well, people who are stressed are more resistant to insulin—which "tells" cells to take in glucose for energy—and without it, their metabolic process is slowed down so that they store fat instead of burning it. And since the foods you crave when you're feeling stressed tend to be of the comfort variety, the combination of sugar and a slow metabolism can lead to weight gain.

Your libido plummets.
Asian couple unhappy in bed because neither is in the mood to have sex

Your hormone levels have everything to do with your sex drive. This means that when your body is producing too much cortisol, it is unable to focus on the other hormones in the body, including sex hormones like testosterone and estrogen that control your libido.

Your menstrual cycle becomes irregular.

Tampon on string

Cortisol has a direct impact on how much your body produces estrogen and progesterone, two sex hormones that control your cycle. "Evolutionarily speaking, this makes sense—if a woman is under a great deal of stress, either physical or emotional, it is likely not an ideal time for a pregnancy, so the system shuts down," Carolyn C. Thompson, MD, FACOG, explained to SheKnows.

You lose your breath.

Woman having trouble breathing

As the American College of Cardiology explains, anxiety causes the muscles that help you breathe to become tense, which can leave you gasping for air. If you feel yourself becoming short of breath in a stressful situation, doctors recommend taking deep, paced breaths to regain your composure.

Your immune system weakens.

commonly misspelled words

Numerous studies have found a shocking correlation between a person's stress levels and their immune system. In one 2017 study published in PLOS One, for instance, researchers found that students had a reduced number of natural killer cells and monocytes—both of which are part of the body's immune system response—during exam periods.

You get headaches.

man with headache migraine

When your body senses stress, your muscles immediately tense up as a defense mechanism against any potential threats. Unfortunately, due to the stress-related tension in your shoulders and neck, you might experience a headache that won't improve until your mood does. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, these are called tension headaches, which are brought on by other risk factors like sleeping in a cold room, the flu, and drinking caffeine.

Your heart rate speeds up.

Man Having a Heart Attack

According to the American Psychological Association, hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol are all released when the body is under stress, which causes the heart rate to speed up and the heart muscle to contract with more force. These palpitations will pass once the body is no longer experiencing distress, but people who suffer from chronic stress need to take heed: Every time they're stressed, they increase their risk for heart attack and stroke.

Your bowel movements become irregular.

cardboard roll in bathroom

The brain and the gut are closely connected, so when the body experiences stress, it causes the gut to spasm in people with irritable bowel syndrome, according to WebMD. If these spasms make the entire colon contract, then you will experience diarrhea, and if they are confined to just one area, then you'll be backed up instead. The good news is that over-the-counter medications can help put your bowels back in order, as can avoiding foods like coffee and chocolate.

You have more trouble reproducing.

pregnant woman in bed

Being stressed impacts fertility in many ways, one of which is that it makes it harder for an egg to implant in the uterus. In fact, according to one 2014 study published in Human Reproduction, women whose saliva contained high amounts of alpha-amylase, a biomarker for stress, took 29 percent longer to become pregnant compared to those with insignificant levels.

Your memory becomes impaired.

Confused man on dating phrases

If you have a tendency to misplace your car keys when you're stressed, then you're not alone. According to one 2010 review published in Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry, chronic stress negatively impacts spatial memory, which helps you locate objects, recall events, and navigate a city.

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