When we feel under pressure the nervous system instructs our bodies to release stress hormones including adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol. These produce physiological changes to help us cope with the threat or danger we see to be upon us. This is called the “stress response” or the “fight-or-flight” response.
Stress can actually be positive, as the stress response helps us stay alert, motivated and focused on the task at hand. Usually, when the pressure subsides, the body rebalances and we start to feel calm again. But when we experience stress too often or for too long, or when the negative feelings overwhelm our ability to cope, then problems will arise. Continuous activation of the nervous system – experiencing the “stress response” – causes wear and tear on the body. The following is a list of the more common reactions to stress our bodies produce:
- Respiratory and breathing problems. When we are stressed, the respiratory system is directly affected. We tend to breathe harder and more quickly in an effort to quickly distribute oxygen-rich blood around our body. Although this is not an issue for most of us, it could be a problem for people with asthma who may feel short of breath and struggle to take in enough oxygen. It can also cause quick and shallow breathing, where minimal air is taken in, which can lead to hyperventilation. This is more likely if someone is prone to anxiety and panic attacks.
- Immune system. Stress wreaks havoc on our immune system. Cortisol released in our bodies suppresses the immune system and inflammatory pathways, and we become more susceptible to infections and chronic inflammatory conditions. Our ability to fight off illness is reduced.
- Muscular system. The musculoskeletal system is affected greatly. Our muscles tense up, which is the body’s natural way of protecting ourselves from injury and pain. Repeated muscle tension can cause bodily aches and pains, and when it occurs in the shoulders, neck, and head it may result in tension headaches and migraines. Seizures are an extreme way our bodies are affected by stress and tension and need to be addressed immediately.
- Your heart. There are cardiovascular effects. When stress is acute (in the moment), heart and blood pressure rise, but they return to normal once the acute stress has passed. If acute stress is repeatedly experienced, or if stress becomes chronic (over a long period of time) it can cause damage to blood vessels and arteries. This increases the risk for hypertension, heart attack or stroke.
- The reproductive system. There can be problems with our reproductive systems too. For men, chronic stress may affect the production of testosterone and sperm. It may even lead to erectile dysfunction or impotence. Women can experience changes in their menstrual system and increased premenstrual symptoms.
- Emotional wellbeing. Stress has marked effects on our emotional well-being. It is normal to experience high and low moods in our daily lives, but when we are stressed we may feel more tired, have mood swings or feel more irritable than usual. Stress causes hyperarousal which means we may have difficulty falling or staying asleep and experience restless nights. This impairs concentration, attention, learning, and memory. Researchers have linked poor sleep to chronic health problems, obesity, and depression.
- Harmful habits. The way that we cope with stress has an additional, indirect effect on our health. Under pressure, people may adopt more harmful habits such as smoking, drinking, or doing drugs to relieve stress. But these behaviors are inappropriate ways to adapt and only lead to more health problems and risks to our personal safety and well-being.
So learn to manage your stress, before it manages you. It’s all about keeping it in check. Some stress in life is normal – and a little stress can help us to feel alert, motivated, focused, energetic and even excited. Take positive actions channel energy effectively and you may find yourself performing better, achieving more and feeling good. And as everyone always says…start meditating!