This Is What Happens to Your Body When Experience Stress

Stress wreaks some serious havoc inside your body.

Stressed woman sitting by the window feeling anxious in the winter
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Back when humans relied on instincts and bodily responses to stay out of harm's way, stress was actually useful. However, the body can't distinguish between real threats (being chased by a hungry wild beast) and false alarms (feeling overwhelmed by hordes of holiday shoppers), so nowadays, many people suffer from chronic stress that does more harm than good. During the holidays especially, this stress can wreak some serious havoc on your body. If you're curious as to what's actually happening inside your body when you're feeling anxious and overwhelmed, then keep reading to get the low-down on the effects of stress on the body.

You lose sleep.

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Excessive secretion of the hormone cortisol due to stress affects the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, one of the neuroendocrine stress systems responsible for controlling the body's sleep/wake cycle. With too much cortisol in the body, along with other stress hormones like corticotropin-releasing hormone and noradrenaline, you become unable to fall asleep—and you may even develop insomnia if the source of your anxiety does not go away.

Your blood sugar rises.

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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 stores 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.

It puts you on the path toward diabetes.

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When the body experiences stress, it releases hormones epinephrine and cortisol. This, in turn, causes the liver to assume that there is an emergency and produce more glucose in order to fuel the "fight or flight" response it believes to be coming. When that extra glucose isn't used, most people are able to reabsorb it—but in people with a predisposition to Type 2 diabetes, this extra blood sugar is a step in the wrong direction. If you know that you are prediabetic, then you should take extra precautions to avoid putting your body under stress.

Your libido plummets.

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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.

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Cortisol has a direct impact on how much estrogen and progesterone, two sex hormones that control your cycle, are produced. "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," Dr. Carolyn C. Thompson, MD, FACOG, explained to SheKnows.

You lose your breath.

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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.

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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.

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When your body senses stress, your muscles immediately tense up as a defense mechanism against any potential threats. Unfortunately, what this means for you is that, thanks to the stress-related tension in your shoulders and neck, you might experience a headache that won't dissipate until your mood does.

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, these are called tension headaches—and thanks to other risk factors like sleeping in a cold room, the flu, and drinking caffeine, the holiday season is an especially bad time for them.

Your heart rate speeds up.

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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 care, as every time they are stressed they increase their risk for a heart attack and a stroke.

Your metabolism slows down.

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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—the hormone that "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. What's worse is that the foods that you crave when you're feeling stressed tend to be of the fattening variety, and the combination of sugar and a slow metabolism can lead to some serious weight gain.

Your bowel movements become irregular.

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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 so long as you're overtaxed.

In the meantime, 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.

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Being stressed impacts fertility in many ways, one of which being that it makes it harder for the egg to implant in the uterus. And just how much can feeling overwhelmed impact your ability to reproduce? According to one 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.

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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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