How Does Stress Affect the Body?

Stress, it seems, is an inevitable part of life – with each season of life, there are associated stressors. However, managing stress is a key part of maintaining your overall health. The effects of stress can impact us in more ways than we often realize. Stress can cause undesirable physical symptoms in the short term. In the long term, it can disrupt almost all of your body’s processes, affecting the longevity and quality of your life.

Read to learn more about how stress affects your body and how to manage your stress for a better quality of life.

How Does Stress Affect the Body?

You’ve likely experienced the acute physical symptoms of stress: sweaty palms, digestive issues, and an elevated heart rate are all physical manifestations of stress. These are normal reactions to situations of heightened stress, such as a big presentation at work or a stressful conversation with a loved one.

However, living in a state of heightened stress for extended periods causes long-term activation of the stress response system, flooding your body with cortisol and other stress hormones. In other words, your body stays in a chronic state of “fight or flight,” affecting your health in many ways. For example, stress affects sleep quality, mental health, neurological health, cardiovascular health, skin health, and more.

Often, the impact of stress is further exacerbated by the unhealthy habits people use to cope with the stress – such as smoking or drinking alcohol, eating unhealthy foods, skipping exercise, and spending more time in front of screens. Stress can also cause people to isolate themselves socially, which can lead to higher levels of anxiety and depression.

How Stress Affects Sleep Quality

Sleep hygiene is one of the key pillars of healthy living – and often, one of the first things to go when experiencing heightened stress levels. Stress can make it harder to get a good night’s sleep, causing trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, having nightmares, or tossing and turning throughout the night.

Poor sleep quality is often associated with other poor habits – you’re more likely to eat more calories in a day, for example, when you don’t sleep the recommended 7-8 hours. You’re also less likely to hit the gym or take your dogs for a walk when you’re tired from a night of poor sleep.

How Stress Affects Mental Health

Staying in a state of “fight or flight” for extended periods can negatively affect your mental health. Stress can manifest as irritability or aggression, leading to conflict with those around you. In addition, long-term stress can lead you to withdraw from doing the things you enjoy or taking good care of yourself, which can spiral into depression.

Stress can make it hard to be present or focused on the task in front of you. Difficulty concentrating can lead to poor performance at work or school, causing low self-esteem and a new source of stress.

How Stress Affects the Physical Body

Countless parts of the body are affected by stress, and you may have experienced these effects without realizing they were related to high stress levels. Stress can manifest itself in physical symptoms from head to toe that you might not immediately attribute to the stressors causing them.

For example, many people experience more headaches during periods of heightened stress, which could be due to poor sleep, poor posture, jaw clenching, or a combination of these.

Digestive issues are another common physical symptom of stress. The increase of stress hormones can cause issues with gut motility, contributing to either constipation, bloating, and stomach pain, or the opposite effect: diarrhea and frequent trips to the bathroom.

Elevated levels of stress hormones can cause you to feel more aches and pains in your body – these can also be due to muscle tension, which you are more likely to experience when you’re stressed, or poor sleep, which can make you feel tired and achy all over.

If left unchecked for longer periods, stress can contribute to disease due to the elevated levels of stress hormones and the bad habits we might pick up to cope with stress (like smoking, drinking, and living a sedentary lifestyle). 

Extended periods of stress can even suppress the immune system due to the increase in cortisol, making you more susceptible to infection and sickness.

Tips for Stress Management

Managing stress is key to maintaining our overall health. Although some types of stress are outside of our control, there are ways to reduce the amount of stress we experience in our daily lives.

1. Identify sources of stress.

The first step toward reducing stress is identifying what contributes to your stress – and getting specific about it. For example, you may know that work is causing stress, but what about it exactly? Is it the lack of fulfillment from the work itself, your overly critical manager, or perhaps the long commute that keeps you from your family? The more specific you get about what is causing your stress, the more likely you will be able to find actionable solutions.

2. Build strong relationships.

Building and maintaining strong interpersonal relationships can help you better cope with stressors in life. For example, talking through your stress with a good friend, family member, therapist, or romantic partner can help you feel less alone and encourage you to take action. Maintaining close relationships also provides built-in accountability: someone close to you might be able to recognize signs that you are struggling before you can and can help you curb bad habits before they negatively impact your health.

3. Avoid unhealthy relationships.

Healthy, positive relationships can help you manage stress better by providing support, perspective, and accountability when you need it most. However, not all relationships have a positive impact: Negative, toxic people can elevate your stress and harm your mind, body, and spirit.

Often, your body will tell you when you are interacting with someone bad for your well-being:

  • Your heart might race.
  • Your palms might get sweaty.
  • You might feel more irritable or impulsive.

While it might not be possible to eliminate contact with certain negative people in your life completely, you can limit your contact with them to preserve your peace and well-being.

4. Practice self-care every day.

When you hear the phrase “self-care,” you might think of bubble baths and face masks – but self-care is a deeper practice of proactively choosing to promote your own health and well-being. The Global Self-Care Federation outlines these six elements of self-care:

  • Making healthy lifestyle choices
  • Avoiding unhealthy lifestyle choices
  • Responsibly using prescription and non-prescription medicines
  • Self-recognition of symptoms
  • Self-monitoring
  • Self-management

Practicing self-care every day means choosing to prioritize your health and well-being with your daily decisions. It does not mean you have to do everything by yourself: part of self-care is recognizing when you might need outside support.

5. Seek professional help.

Everyone experiences stress from time to time; this is a part of life. But if your stress is having a pronounced negative impact on your mental or physical health, it might be time to seek professional help.

Talking through your stressors with a trained mental health professional can be a significant first step toward reducing stress. From there, you might look to treat the physical symptoms of your stress. Nufabrx HealthWear® pain-relieving compression sleeves can help alleviate the aches and pains related to stress. For more involved issues, physical therapy or personal training can further help with aches and pains, while a sleep specialist can help you resolve your sleep issues.

Managing Stress: A Lifelong Journey

Every person on the planet is on a lifelong journey of managing stress. However, simply being aware of the ways that stress can affect your body is a powerful first step towards managing your stress better.

Check out Nufabrx HealthWear® pain-relieving compression sleeves to help alleviate the aches and pains related to stress – and keep you active and moving.

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