The Hidden Impact Of Chronic Stress On Our Physical Health

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There is a pivotal difference between good stress and bad stress

Stress is a complex topic. Affecting everyone differently, the length and severity of stress depend on dozens of internal (biological) and external (environmental) factors. To further compound matters, small periods of stress can actually be good for us. Sounds strange we know, but to help clear up some of the confusion, we need to break down our fight-or-flight response.

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Staring down the snout of a sabre-tooth tiger, our prehistoric ancestors would have had two options: Stand and fight, or run for their life. While we know which one we would choose, either option triggers many biological changes in our body. Our body receives a surge of epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol. The result is an increase in adrenaline, focus, heart rate, and blood pressure. Fast forward a few million years, and although the threat of four-legged predators has passed, modern society has its own challenges sent to test our stress response.

Deadlines at work, having a difficult conversation, public speaking, or meeting your partner's parents; all of these activities can trigger a stress response, activating our natural fight-or-flight response. Running away from the in-laws isn't advisable, but the extra focus provided by stress will definitely help bridge those awkward gaps in conversation. If acute periods of stress are good, what constitutes bad stress?

Prolonged periods of stress do not allow the build-up of chemicals triggered by our flight-or-fight response to subside. Instead, they stay inside the body, contributing to anxiety and several health issues. Stay stressed long enough, and the impact on your body is severe.

Five ways chronic stress damages our bodies

Feeling nervous when stressed is natural. It is also a sign of short-term stress. Chronic stress has far more sustained symptoms. These include difficulty breathing, dizziness, loss of libido, chest pain, and fatigue.

Many of these symptoms will be instantly recognisable to sufferers. However, we don’t just display the impacts of stress externally. Internally, our body is desperately struggling to restore a natural balance. The effect of the chemical turmoil caused by chronic stress extends to many critical biological systems.

Stress causes digestive problems

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That sinking feeling in your stomach before a stressful situation? That is your gut reacting to your body's fight-or-flight response. Our digestive system is far more elegant than many of us give it credit for. Home to millions of nerve cells, stress can cause a powerful reaction in the gastrointestinal tract.

A build-up of stomach acid, nausea, diarrhoea, or constipation, even spasms in your oesophagus; all of these symptoms can be caused by chronic stress—stress that won’t go away. In worst case scenarios, if you already have a pre-existing condition like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or stomach ulcers, stress can further exacerbate these disorders.

Stress leads to obesity

After a tough day at work, the last thing we want to do is prepare a meal from scratch. We crave foods high in fat and sugar. Ready in minutes, they provide an instant feel-good factor and appear to relieve stress, at least in the short-term. The craving for fatty foods isn’t the result of laziness or poor self-control. It is actually down to our brain’s reward system. When we eat foods that we find pleasurable (most of the time this ends up being junk food), our body releases dopamine to combat the build-up of stress-related neurochemicals.

You can undoubtedly see where this cycle ends up. We get stressed, indulge in comfort foods to feel better and end up gaining weight. The increase in weight causes us to become emotionally stressed, and we are back to the beginning of the cycle. Stress can easily lead to obesity, a condition that brings its own collection of damaging symptoms.

Stress weakens the immune system

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Our immune system is used to dealing with stress. When we get ill, our body is put under additional stress and has to work harder. A perfectly natural reaction, as it ensures infections and disease can be dealt with when needed. Typically, the stress from illness hits you hard, before getting better as the days go by. In a week or two, you return to feeling normal, and a natural state of homeostasis is restored. Your immune system works in the same way as you do when an urgent deadline is approaching. Your efforts ramp up to get the project finished, before levelling out again.

Using the same scenario, imagine how you would feel if you were already under pressure when your boss asks for the project to be finished even sooner. You are already feeling stretched thin, and now have to double your efforts again. The quality and finesse of your presentation are bound to be lacking. You haven’t been able to give it your maximum effort.

Now, replace the under pressure version of yourself with your immune system. It may be designed to increase blood flow and our inflammatory response when we are stressed, but only in the short-term. Chronic stress weakens our immune system's ability to operate efficiently. A review published on the NCBI concluded that “research into the effects of stress on inflammation in clinical populations has demonstrated that stress exposure can increase the likelihood of developing disease”.

Nervous system problems

The implications of an increased inflammatory response extend beyond just our immune system; even our nervous system suffers. The Department of Psychiatry in Korea found that stress can “increase the level of proinflammatory cytokines”. Cytokines act as messengers that tell cells what to do in the event of a disease or infection. While an inflammatory response is needed to deal with these issues, an increase in proinflammatory cytokines has been linked to the development of heart disease, diabetes, and some types of cancer. For a complete overview of cytokines and their importance, head to our blog on chronic inflammation.

Cardiovascular issues

Alongside our brain, the heart is probably the second most important organ in our body. Keeping it in optimal condition is vital to living a long and healthy life. Unfortunately, chronic stress significantly impacts our heart's ability to work like clockwork.

Using several sources of scientific data, a review available on the Nature International Journal of Science wanted to examine the direct correlation between psychological stress and cardiovascular disease. Key points from the study include: “Psychological stress contributes to cardiovascular disease at several stages”, going on to add, “chronic stress at work and in private life is associated with a 40–50% increase in the occurrence of coronary heart disease”.

...chronic stress at work and in private life is associated with a 40–50% increase in the occurrence of coronary heart disease.

How to manage chronic stress—the BAMA method

The detrimental extent of chronic stress is vast. Affecting major organs, leading to weight gain, and impacting our ability to fight disease, managing stress is crucially important. The BAMA method is a prime example of simple steps to maintaining a reduction in stress. By focussing on body, awareness, mind, and art, you can experience a scientifically supported reduction in stress. To make BAMA as simple as possible to follow, we have outlined the principles in an exclusive article. You can read more about it here.

Thankfully, despite the repercussions, there is a lot you can do to support a reduction in stress. Whether that is through gentle exercise, being creative, eating natural, healthy foods, or engaging in social activities, know that chronic stress needn’t impact your life. The key is understanding how your fight-or-flight response works and using it to your advantage.

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