Stress is a normal and natural reaction to life’s many challenges, and everyone experiences it at some point. While some people can manage stress better than others, excessive, long-term or chronic stress tends to affect everyone’s health.
The rise in chronic or long-term stress
It probably won’t surprise you that the percentage of people in our country experiencing long-term stress has been on the rise. It’s something that’s been researched and written about since 2007.
According to the American Institute of Stress:
- About 33 percent of people report feeling extreme stress
- 77 percent of people experience stress that affects their physical health
- 73 percent of people have stress that impacts their mental health
- 48 percent of people have trouble sleeping because of stress
It doesn’t take a medical professional to tell you that those numbers aren’t good and unfortunately things may get worse before we see an improvement.
Causes of prolonged stress
Undoubtedly, last year’s COVID-19 world pandemic dramatically increased the number of people experiencing chronic stress. However, it’s been on the rise for years due to a number of problems, including:
- Rising costs of living
- Concerns about politics and the future of our country
- Employees being overworked and underpaid
- No raise in minimum wage in more than 10 years
- Increasing costs of healthcare
- Incidence of more dual income families which can increase the cost of child care and put additional stressors on a marriage
Your body’s reaction to stress
Your body’s fight or flight response to stress was designed as a short term survival tool to allow people to react to life-threatening situations quickly. Your immune system responds by increasing the production of disease fighting white blood cells and releasing cortisol into the bloodstream. Once the threat has been resolved, your immune system returns to its baseline.
When chronic or long-term stress occurs, the immune system never returns to its baseline and your cortisol levels remain elevated which can be the reason for several health issues related to long-term stress.
Signs your body is experiencing chronic stress range from minor concerns like an acne breakout to life-threatening conditions like a heart attack or stroke. What becomes even more concerning is that most people typically experience more than one symptom, which makes chronic stress even more of a health threat.
While there’s no official number of how many health issues stress can cause, we’re going to focus on the top 13 that we see most often.
When experiencing chronic stress, your body releases more cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, into your bloodstream. This causes an increase in oil production making your skin more prone to acne and other skin problems.
People also touch their faces more often when stress which spreads bacteria that can cause acne.
Alcohol or drug addiction
Using alcohol or drugs can be a common reaction to stress, especially if addiction problems run in either side of your family. It can seem like a great short term coping mechanism because you’re able to forget about your problems.
Once the side effects wear off, the stress comes back and people can resort to drugs and alcohol again, making it a vicious cycle. This can be even more of a risk if a person has an addictive personality to begin with.
Anxiety and/or depression
Both mental health issues are a common reaction to stress. Again, elevated levels of cortisol are often to blame. Chronic stress can also cause reduced levels of serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain, both of which have been linked to causes of depression.
There are many theories on the link between chronic pain and sustained periods of stress. Stress tends to cause muscles to become tight and sore typically in the neck, shoulders, face, jaw and lower back.
It can also lead to flare-ups of symptoms of arthritis, fibromyalgia and other conditions because stress lowers your threshold for pain
Cortisol also interferes with neurotransmitters, the chemicals your brain cells use to communicate with each other. This can cause the brain to become overstimulated and distracted which leads to memory problems, impaired decision making, confusion and difficulty learning new information.
Bloating, stomach pain, constipation and diarrhea can all be caused by prolonged levels of stress. During the fight or flight response, the body redirects energy that would be used for digestion to the muscles. If your body remains in fight or flight mode, that energy continues to be redirected.
High levels of stress hormones can negatively affect both a man and woman’s reproductive organs in a number of ways:
- Women can become more susceptible to increased infections and changes in their menstrual cycles
- Men may develop erectile dysfunction problems
- Decreased in libido in men and women which leads to less sex
- Lowered sperm count which can become an even bigger issue when combined with depression, weight gain and alcohol or drug use
Frequent headaches are one of the most common symptoms of stress and can be caused by a variety of things:
- Tense muscles in the back of the neck and even in the scalp
- Clenched jaws
- Grinding your teeth
- Lack of sleep
- Too much caffeine or too much alcohol
High blood pressure
Excessive stress often leads to high blood pressure, which over time increases your risk of a heart attack or stroke. Other symptoms of stress like poor diet and exercise, drinking or smoking too much increase that risk even more.
Increased frequency or severity of illness
Stress results in a lower count of your white blood cells that help your body fight off infection. This often leads to more frequent and possibly more severe illnesses based on other health implications you may be experiencing.
People with high levels of work-related stress tend to be sleepier, but have more difficulty falling asleep. Racing thoughts and replaying stressful events that occurred that day can both affect the ability to fall and stay asleep. Increased levels of cortisol are another contributing factor since the body is still in fight or flight mode.
Weight loss or weight gain
Some people “eat their stress” and turn to comfort foods high in fat, sugar and carbs, all of which contribute to weight gain. Conversely, they may become so depressed that they stop eating and lose large amounts of weight. This can also become a vicious cycle that causes large fluctuations in weight which can have multiple negative health implications.
As you can see, chronic stress is not kind to your body. And while the chronic stress you’re experiencing may be unavoidable, there are various coping mechanisms that can help minimize how the stress affects your health.
We will cover those coping strategies in our next blog so be sure to stay tuned.