The Alarming Effects of Stress on Your Body — And What to Do About Them

AdobeStock/Ana Blazic Pavlovic

Stressed Woman at Work

AdobeStock/Ana Blazic Pavlovic

Emily Long
Emily Long10

As hard-working women, most of us are no strangers to stress. The demands of our jobs, our responsibilities as parents, our financial well-being, and even the national news are regular sources of stress in our day-to-day lives. We’re so used to being “busy” that we may not even recognize that this stress exists — nor are we aware of the impact it has on the body and the brain.

According to Healthline, "these stress hormones are the same ones that trigger your body’s 'fight or flight' response. Your heart races, your breath quickens, and your muscles ready for action. This response was designed to protect your body in an emergency by preparing you to react quickly. But when the stress response keeps firing, day after day, it could put your health at serious risk."

At its most basic, stress is the body’s response to a threat. It lets us know that something isn’t quite right. Acute stress is the “fight-or-flight” reaction to an emergency. You’ve probably experienced the “adrenaline rush” that happens when you get hurt, find yourself in a dangerous situation, or even ride an intense rollercoaster — adrenaline, one of several stress hormones, raises your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure, and puts your muscles and nerves on high alert to address the threat. When that threat is gone, the body returns to homeostasis, or its natural resting state.

Chronic stress is the buildup of many acute events over a prolonged period of time along with the ever-present pressure to balance work, family, exercise, grocery shopping, food preparation, and more. When you can’t escape stress, the body’s response never turns off. As a result, we are constantly exposed to another stress hormone called cortisol, which decreases immune system function, impairs short-term memory and learning capacity, and affects the way our body manages our energy supply.

"Stress is a natural physical and mental reaction to life experiences," Healthline reports. "Everyone expresses stress from time to time. Anything from everyday responsibilities like work and family to serious life events such as a new diagnosis, war, or the death of a loved one can trigger stress. For immediate, short-term situations, stress can be beneficial to your health. It can help you cope with potentially serious situations. Your body responds to stress by releasing hormones that increase your heart and breathing rates and ready your muscles to respond."

While a certain amount of stress is acceptable, even good for you — it can stimulate your body and brain to adapt to a new situation — more Americans than ever before are experiencing real consequences that impact their lives. Stress disrupts sleep, leads to negative thought patterns, impacts personal and professional relationships, and decreases focus and concentration, all effects that can cause your performance to suffer at work and at home.

Stress also has significant physical and physiological impacts. It increases our risk for heart disease, hypertension, sexual dysfunction, obesity, anxiety, and depression — it can even alter the structure and function of our brains. Literally.

Moreover, stress can turn into chronic stress.

"Your central nervous system (CNS) is in charge of your 'flght or flight' response," according to Healthline. "In your brain, the hypothalamus gets the ball rolling, telling your adrenal glands to release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones rev up your heartbeat and send blood rushing to the areas that need it most in an emergency, such as your muscles, heart, and other important organs. When the perceived fear is gone, the hypothalamus should tell all systems to go back to normal. If the CNS fails to return to normal, or if the stressor doesn’t go away, the response will continue. Chronic stress is also a factor in behaviors such as overeating or not eating enough, alcohol or drug abuse, and social withdrawal." 

So, what to do? We all face job stress at some point, but high levels of job stress and high stress levels in general can have long-term effects on our health. Coping with work-related stress would help health problems, but it's important to figure out the root of your work-related stress. Here are some stress-reduction techniques—a few ways to manage or prevent chronic stress.

Review your habits, lifestyle, and routines.

Some sources of stress may be obvious — the physical stress of an injury, the mental stress of a demanding boss — but others could be hiding. The foods you eat and the medications you take could cause chemical stress. Often, all three contribute to chronic states of stress. Work with your doctor, counselor, nutritionist, and other wellness providers to identify what may be contributing to your stress and devise a plan to address each.

Take time for self-care.

Of course this is easier said than done when you have a job to do and a family to feed, but it’s critical that you take care of yourself too. It’s why airlines tell you to put on your oxygen mask first before helping others — it’s hard to be present when you can’t breathe. Set aside time for you every single day, even if it’s just five minutes to sit quietly by yourself.

Ask for help.

It’s OK not to do it all. Rely on your friends, family, and co-workers to support you before your stress gets too overwhelming. Take a vacation — even if it’s just a day of doing nothing — and don’t feel guilty about it.

Get active.

One of the best ways to address stress is to exercise. Exercise releases endorphins, boosts your mood, and provides a respite from the places and activities that cause you stress. You can work out alone, take a yoga class with a friend, or go on a walk with your kids. Bonus points for getting outside — time spent nature has repeatedly been shown to improve wellbeing.

Connect with others.

Researchers believe that lack of human connection is as bad for our health as smoking. Call an old friend, invite a co-worker for a lunchtime walk, or go on a date with your significant other. This can help you escape a source of stress, process what you are going through, or simply take an opportunity to laugh.

Do less.

It’s easy to feel like we have to win at everything, but that attitude only leads to more stress.

“If you find yourself gasping for air at the end of the day, try to reduce or eliminate activities in your life that aren’t essential,” says Richard Martinez, a personal and professional development expert with RISE Programs. “If everything you do is essential, try breaking down your schedule into small tasks and making sure to take intermittent breaks. Pushing yourself too much will only cause frustration and feed stress.”

Stress doesn’t have to run your life or impact your health! Learn what triggers your stress and take time to address it before it affects your personal and professional wellbeing.