Things That Happen to Our Bodies When We’re Stressed

Apr 25, 2018 at 3:00 p.m. ET
Image: Getty Images/Design: Ashley Britton/SheKnows

Being stressed is no fun, right? It can wreck your day and make it hard to relax, and even more annoyingly, it can also make you feel crappy even though you're not sick. It's not in your imagination: As it turns out, stress can negatively impact your physical health as well as your mental health.

Two types of stress

Dr. David D. Clarke, a physician and president of the Psychophysiologic Disorders Association, tells SheKnows there are two types of stress that we may encounter — short term and long term. Our bodies are designed to cope with short-term stress quite well, including situations that prompt us to go into fight-or-flight mode.

He explains that the sympathetic nervous system helps us out with an increased heart beat, deeper breathing, higher blood pressure, greater blood flow to our muscles, reduced blood flow to our digestive systems and the release of sweat to cool us off. Once the stressful situation has resolved, our body systems go back to normal.

More: Going on a "Facebook Vacation" Can Lower Stress, but It's Complicated

Long-term stress, on the other hand, describes chronic stress, which is not good or healthy. Multiple daily challenges (which can include experiences such as driving to work in heavy traffic, work itself, struggling to pay bills, meeting deadlines, relationship problems, family issues, horrid neighbors and, unfortunately, many more) can keep your body in a state of stress without the relief that comes when you return to your normal state of being. This is the type of stress that can have long-term implications, some of which can be severe.

When you're stressed, your body has to deal with it

Short-term stress, which we've described above, doesn't result in long-term issues. Once the stressor is removed, you're back to normal, and everything is hunky-dory. However, chronic stress can and does cause problems that can range in severity. This is because the symptoms that help our bodies during a fight-or-flight event, if they never cool down and return to their normal states, can wreak havoc in our bodies.

Unrelenting long-term stress that goes on unchecked can lead to several physical issues. According to the Mayo Clinic, these can include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Chronic pain
  • Digestive and bowel symptoms
  • Dizziness
  • Visual disturbances
  • Headaches
  • Muscle tension or pain
  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue
  • Sleep disturbances

It can also lead to mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression and can also lead to irritability, anger, restlessness, lack of motivation, social withdrawal, under- or overeating and exercising less often.

Clarke says it can be difficult to diagnose because the symptoms are not caused by organ disease, infections or structural abnormalities. "Instead, it is necessary to evaluate for sources of current life stress (including poor self-care skills), the prolonged impact of adverse childhood experience and the presence of subtle cases of depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress," he explains.

What can you do about stress?

If constant stress has resulted in physical symptoms, you're experiencing chronic stress, and it can leave your health wanting. There are steps you can take at home to try to get a handle on it: Exercise on a regular basis, explore relaxation techniques, participate in self-care, socialize with friends or family and get out for a massage if possible.

However, if you have chest pain, don't write it off as just stress, especially if you experience other heart attack symptoms, such as shortness of breath, sweating, nausea or pain that radiates down your arm — get medical help immediately.

More: Knowing the Symptoms of Heart Attacks in Women Could Save a Life

That being said, not every case of chronic stress can be alleviated with a bubble bath and regular exercise. If you're not sure that stress is the cause of your physical or mental symptoms (or you've tried to take steps to control it and your symptoms aren't improving), visit a doctor to see if there are any medical causes that can possibly be treated. Counseling or therapy can help as well. And while you wait for you appointment, take a deep breath — and we'll take one with you.

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