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How Prolonged Stress Impacts Your Health

prolonged stress

How Prolonged Stress Impacts Your Health

Suppose you’re late for an important meeting and you’re sitting in traffic, watching minutes fade away. Stress hormones are released from the hypothalamus—a tiny part of the brain. Here we look at the effects of prolonged stress on your health. 

The stress hormones trigger your body’s fight response or flight response. Your breath quickens, your heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, and your muscles become ready for action. This response protects the body in an emergency. But when the stress hormone persists day after another, it puts your health at risk.

Stress is a natural mental and physical reaction to harmful situations—whether perceived or actual.          

Our bodies are designed to take moderate stress, but it seriously affects our health when the stress is chronic or long-term.

Stress affects all aspects of your life, from your behavior, emotions, thinking ability, and physical health. 

No part of the body is immune to stress. Read along to learn the impact of prolonged stress on our bodies.

Effects of Prolonged Stress on Your Health

Musculoskeletal System

Muscles tense up when the body is stressed. Muscle tension is the body’s way of protecting against pain and injury. 

With acute tension like being late for an interview, the muscles tense up at once and then go back to normal when the stress passes. With long-term or chronic stress, body muscles are in a state of more or less guardedness. 

When the muscle is tense up or taut for a long time, it triggers other body reactions and even causes stress-related conditions. For instance, migraine and tension-type headaches are related to long-term muscle tension in the head, shoulder, and neck areas. Musculoskeletal pain in the upper extremities and lower back are also linked with stress.

Therapy, relaxation techniques, and other stress-relieving activities like exercise, quality sleep, and healthy eating have been proven to effectively lower muscle tension and decrease certain stress disorders like headaches. Stress-relieving activities have been shown to improve daily function and mood.

Cardiovascular System

The cardiovascular system comprises two elements; the heart and blood vessels. These two work together to provide oxygen and nourishment to the body organs. This activity is also associated with the body’s response to stress. 

Acute stress—short-term stress like being stuck in traffic, meeting deadlines, or slamming on brakes to avoid hitting a car—causes stronger contractions of the heart muscle and an increase in heart rate with the stress hormones like cortisol, noradrenaline, and adrenaline being the messengers of these effects. 

Moreover, blood vessels directing blood to larger muscles and the heart increase the amount of blood, thus increasing blood pressure. But once the acute stress passes, the body returns to its normal state.

Chronic stress experienced for long periods increases the risks of blood vessels and heart problems. The prolonged increase in stress hormones and heart rate increases the chances of heart attack, hypertension, or stroke.

Repeated chronic and acute stress can also promote inflammation in the circulatory system, like the coronary artery, which is a line that links stress to a heart attack.

Effects of Prolonged Stress on Your Health

Endocrine System

When the body senses a threatening, challenging, or uncontrollable situation, it produces a series of events involving the Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis—the primary driver of the endocrine stress response.

This results in an increase in the production of cortisol and steroid hormones called glucocorticoids.

The hypothalamus—nuclei that connect the endocrine system and the brain — signals the pituitary glands a hormone when you’re stressed. This, in turn, signals adrenal glands found above the kidneys to increase the production of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol helps provide energy to deal with an extreme challenge.

Glucocorticoids and cortisol are essential in reducing inflammation and regulating the immune system in threatening situations. But chronic stress can lead to miscommunication between the HPA axis and the immune system.

Miscommunication has been associated with mental and physical disorders like diabetes, obesity, depression, chronic fatigue, and immune disorders.

Nervous System

The nervous system comprises the peripheral division involving the somatic and autonomic nervous system and the central division consisting of the spinal cord and the brain.

The autonomic nervous system is divided into the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems (PNS and SNS) and directly affects physical stress response. When stressed, the SNS contributes to a fight or flight response. 

In an emergency or acute stress, SNS signals adrenal glands to produce cortisol and adrenaline. Both of these hormones increase respiration rate and heartbeat. But once the stress passes the body to a normal state, the recovery is associated with PNS; it has opposing effects to SNS. But over-activity of PNS can lead to stress reactions like compromised blood circulation or bronchoconstriction in asthma.

Chronic and persistent stress makes SNS signal adrenal glands to produce more hormones cortisol and adrenaline.

Effects of Prolonged Stress on Your Health

Male Reproductive System

The male reproductive system is associated with the nervous system. The sympathetic part is responsible for arousal, and the parasympathetic part causes relaxation. The fight or flight response produces testosterone and the sympathetic nervous system that causes arousal in the male anatomy.

Stress makes the body produce the hormone cortisol, which helps regulate blood pressure and promote normal circulatory, cardiovascular, and male reproduction. Excess cortisol can affect the normal functioning male reproductive system.

Chronic stress affects testosterone production resulting in low sex drive, libido, or erectile dysfunction. It can also affect sperm count and maturation, causing trouble in partners trying to conceive.

Female Reproductive System

High-stress levels are associated with irregular or absent menstruation cycles, changes in cycle length, and painful periods among women.

Chronic stress, relationship abuse, chronic medical conditions, and work problems can lead to reduced sexual desire in women.

Chronic stress can also affect a woman’s ability to conceive and the health of her pregnancy. Stress also leads to the development of anxiety and depression during pregnancy. This can lead to complications during birth and disrupt a child’s bonding and development. 

Prolonged Stress Health Effects – The Bottom Line

Although acute or short-term stress can help you accomplish tasks, chronic stress can cause severe mental and physical health.

Fortunately, there are several strategies to hel[p reduce stress and improve your overall well-being, including exercise, mindfulness, spending time in nature, among others.

If chronic stress symptoms persist, seek help from trusted friends, family, or therapists. 

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