By Katie Quinn, MA
FACE-Kids Program Manager
Catholic Charities of Madison
While we might be aware of the connection between the stress in our lives and our emotions, it’s not always easy to identify the connection between stress and our physical wellbeing. When we experience headaches, back pain, heartburn, or even a cold that just won’t seem to go away, it’s natural to look for physical answers for these physical problems. However, stress can sometimes be the culprit.
Our bodies are prepared to handle some stress, since stress is an inevitable part of life. We all generally deal with some stress regularly, whether it’s stress at work or school, stress in our families or other relationships, stress caused by societal events or circumstances, or stress related to finances. However, long-term or chronic stress can take a serious toll on our bodies, from our immune system to our cardiovascular system.
When the stress response is triggered, stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline, are released in order to prepare our bodies to survive the threat (even in stressful situations that are not life-threatening). Our hearts beat faster, our blood pressure rises, and we start to breathe faster, so that our bodies are able to fight, flee, or freeze. Usually, our bodies come back down to normal after the threat or stressor has passed. However, when we are dealing with chronic stress, this stress response remains activated along with the physiological processes that are intended to help your body survive, and this has consequences on the body.
Chronic stress is associated with physical health symptoms across the body’s systems. In the musculoskeletal system, chronic muscle tension caused by chronic stress is associated with tension and migraine headaches as well as chronic back pain. In the cardiovascular system, due to the frequent release of stress hormones in the body and the subsequent increase in one’s heart rate and blood pressure, chronic stress puts a person at an increased risk for hypertension, heart attack, and stroke. Chronic stress impacts the body’s immune system by increasing inflammation and the risk of rheumatic (autoimmune) diseases while decreasing the body’s ability to fight off infection and cancer cells. In the gastrointestinal system, chronic stress can cause gut discomfort and bloating to be felt more easily. Changes in diet due to stress, including eating more or consuming more alcohol or tobacco, can lead to other gastrointestinal issues, such as heartburn, diarrhea, or constipation. This list could go on, as the impact of chronic stress can be widespread throughout the body.
Whether or not you suffer from any chronic physical or mental health condition, it is worth addressing the stress you face in life. The effects of stress build up over time and can lead to physical and mental health conditions that may sneak up on us. In addition, stress can become overwhelming fast. But when we learn coping strategies and stress-relieving activities that work for us, not only do we become better equipped to deal with stress as it arises, we also help protect our bodies and minds from the harmful effects of chronic stress.
- American Psychological Association – “Stress Effects on the Body” (https://www.apa.org/topics/stress/body)
- Maria Juarez-Reyes, MD, PhD (Department of Medicine at Stanford University) – “Beyond Stress and Anxiety: Stress Effects on the Body and How You Can Manage It” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M6ZmTKQyVOE)
- Katie Moisse of ABC News (April 2, 2012). “Chronic Stress Feeds Common Cold, Study Finds” (https://abcnews.go.com/Health/ColdandFluNews/chronic-stress-feeds-common-cold-study-finds/story?id=16054304)
- Brianna Chu, Komal Marwaha, Terrence Sanvictores, Derek Ayers (September 18, 2021). “Physiology, Stress Reaction” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK541120/)
- TED-Ed (October 22, 2015). “How stress affects your body – Sharon Horesh Bergquist” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v-t1Z5-oPtU&t=3s)
- Harvard Health Publishing: Harvard Medical School (July 6, 2020). “Chronic activation of this survival mechanism impairs health). (https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response)