Wellbeing

How Does Stress Affect Your Body?

It seems like being stressed has become the norm these days, and millennials are feeling the pinch just as much as anyone. There’s nothing simple about building careers, navigating relationships and trying to come out on top of a tricky housing market, and it’s easy to see being stressed as an expected by-product of being twenty-something.

But all this stress isn’t great for our bodies and minds, and could be affecting our overall wellbeing more than we think. Below is a snapshot of just some of the ways stress affects your health.

Hormones

Acute stress is felt in the first instance when something stressful happens: the moment when you get an alarming text, you realise you’ve lost your wallet, or your boss dumps a whole bunch of new work on your desk at five minutes to five. In that moment, your body realises it’s in a stressful situation and two hormones are released.

Adrenalin and norepinephrine are designed to help you escape potentially life-threatening situations. As they course through your system, your heartrate rises, your breathing quickens and blood shifts to your muscles. This is great when you need to get out of a situation quickly – say a lion is chasing you, or there’s a fire – but staying in this fight-or-flight mode, or being pushed there often, isn’t ideal for your body.

In the minutes after the first shock of a stressful event, your adrenal glands then start to produce another hormone: cortisol. Cortisol increases the level of glucose in your bloodstream, enhances your brain’s use of this glucose, and boosts tissue repair functions. Cortisol also minimises bodily functions that aren’t going to be necessary while you fight or flee for your life, including digestion, immune responses and reproduction.

This hormonal stress system is designed to be effective during emergencies and then switch back off for regular life. But when the day-to-day becomes a series of small emergencies and your body is constantly flooded with these elevated hormone levels, they can start to do more harm than good.

Skin

Stress can wreak havoc on your skin in a number of ways, with concerns ranging from the cosmetic to serious medical issues.

When stress triggered cortisol courses through your body, it encourages the sebaceous glands in your skin to produce more oil. Oilier skin can lead to pimples and acne breakouts – not exactly what you want when you’re already feeling stressed about life. Studies have also shown that stress, its associated hormones and effects on sleeping and eating routines, might be linked to reduced skin elasticity, meaning more fine lines and wrinkles that age you before your time.

Skin conditions like rosacea, eczema and psoriasis can all be exacerbated by stress. With these guys it’s a double whammy, because flare ups of these conditions can bring on further stress because of discomfort, loss of sleep and worry about the condition’s appearance.

Digestion 

Ever get butterflies in your stomach or feel nauseous when you’re nervous? Along with these sensations, stress can cause some unpleasant difficulties with digestion.

When you’re in a stressful situation, stress hormones cause blood to divert away from your digestive system to your major muscle groups. This slows down your digestion and causes your stomach muscles to tighten in preparation for action. These changes can cause the flutterings you feel when your upset or stressed.

Your brain and your gut are connected by 100 million neurons, and some researchers call the gut the ‘second brain’. When you’re anxious or stressed, your gut lets you know about it. Stress can cause flare ups in people with conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, and might cause diarrhoea or loss of appetite.

Headaches

Tension headaches can be triggered by tightened muscles in the shoulders, neck and head. While a headache might sound fairly benign, headaches can be debilitating, making you less productive and motivated. 

Heart Disease

It’s long been thought that heart health and stress might be linked – think about the last time you described an angry or worried person as “having a heart attack”.

While research is still ongoing, there’s evidence to suggest that stress can be linked to coronary heart disease, which is when the arteries that lead to the heart become narrowed and possibly clogged. The two conditions might be linked because stress can lead to behaviours that can cause heart disease, like eating fatty or salty foods and skipping exercise. Or the effect could be caused by the physical reactions your body has during a stressful time. Depression and anxiety have also both been strongly linked to an increased risk of heart disease, as explained in this Beyond Blue factsheet.

The best things you can do? The advice for lowering your heart disease risk mirrors much of the advice for beating stress: eat a healthy and varied diet, exercise frequently and look after your mental health.

Sleep Problems

Do your worries keep you up at night? It’s no secret that stress can keep you awake and alert when you’d rather be sleeping, making it hard for you to relax to a point where you’ll fall asleep easily. Insomnia describes having difficulty getting to sleep, staying asleep, falling back to sleep if you’ve woken up, or waking up too early, and can be directly linked to stress. It can be a pretty debilitating condition, making you feel drowsy and unable to focus or recall memory, and causing more worry about your inability to sleep well.

As well as not feeling well and alert the next day, not sleeping well might lead to an increased risk of weight gain and obesity, and is possibly linked to the development of Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease and some cancers.

Mental Health 

While stress has physical symptoms, it also affects you mentally. Stress can lead to disturbed sleep, concentration difficulties, lack of motivation, irritability and a general feeling of tiredness or lethargy. It’s a bit of a vicious circle with stress, as these symptoms and their impact on your life can then cause more distress. Ongoing stress has been proven to lead to other mental health concerns, including anxiety disorders and depression.

Unhealthy Habits

Stress might lead you to make poor lifestyle choices or develop new behaviours that aren’t optimal for your health. This could include eating more or less, sleeping too much or too little, procrastinating or neglecting your responsibilities.

When some people are stressed, they cope by using alcohol, cigarettes or recreational drugs to help them relax. However, use of these substances can actually add to your stress. For example, nicotine causes a spike in your heart rate and blood pressure making your heart work harder. Because of this spike it’s difficult to achieve the level of relaxation and stress relief of a non-smoker. Smoking cigarettes can also make you feel stressed more often, as becoming tense and irritable is a common symptom of nicotine withdrawal experienced when you haven’t had a cigarette for a while.

Stress can also make some people want to isolate themselves, which can lead to more feelings of stress and an increased risk of anxiety and depression.

Top Stress Busters

Stress and its effects on your body don’t have to be a regular part of life. Manage your stress by learning to identify when you are stressed, understanding how it affects you and changes your behaviour, and working on strategies to help you relax and cope with stressful situations.

This Way Up offers a free course on stress management, while organisations like beyondblue and Heads up can provide information about looking after your mental health and managing stressful situations at work.

Remember that a little bit of stress in your life is normal, but a lot is not. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or not sure what to do about a stressful situation, talk with a supportive friend, family member or partner, book an appointment with your GP, or call a hotline like Lifeline to talk to a counsellor about how you’re feeling.

Tips with thanks to Queensland Health.