Ruth C. White Ph.D.

Culture in Mind

Stress and The Body

Physical health issues can be caused by stress.

Posted Jun 29, 2018

Some of the physical symptoms of stress are temporary and are related to over arousal. These include rapid heartbeat and heart palpitations, elevated blood pressure, cold or sweaty hands and feet, dry mouth, headaches, upset stomach, chest pain and shortness of breath. However, there are more chronic health issues that can be created by stress.

Musculosketal problems include symptoms such as back pain, jaw pain from clenched jaws and teeth grinding, and muscle tension that can lead to muscle, tendon and ligament problems. Headaches are a common response to stress and are often called ‘tension headaches’ because they are related to muscle tension. In more severe cases, this can lead to migraines. Other physical expressions of muscular tension include stiffness in the jaw and grinding teeth, which often happens as we sleep and can lead to irreversible tooth damage.

Most of us are familiar with that uncomfortable feeling in the pit of our stomach before a public performance or when we have a difficult or important conversation. This feeling can cause us to perform at a high level. But if that stress if chronic and we have that feeling for hours we may experience gastrointestinal symptoms that include heartburn, acid reflux, ulcers, diarrhea, constipation, flatulence or irritable bowel syndrome.

A common response to stress occurs in the respiratory system which causes us to breathe harder and faster. The latter can lead to hyperventilation which can lead to panic attacks in some people. Stress can also exacerbate asthma and trigger asthma attacks. This is why breathing exercises are so essential as a coping mechanism, because it gives our bodies the oxygen we need and calms us down.

A lot of the responses described above are related to changes that take place in the endocrine system, which regulates the release of stress hormones like cortisol, adrenaline and epinephrine. Adrenalin and epinephrine are directly related to the flight or fight response and gives our bodies the energy to flee. The release of cortisol and epinephrine causes the liver to produce more glucose which also gives us the energy to flee. If we don’t flee then our bodies absorb the extra sugar but in people who are at risk of Type 2 diabetes, the extra sugar may cause diabetes. Sweating is also a common response to stress, so much so that many commercials for anti-perspirants and deodorants feature someone experiencing stress who doesn’t show it because they are wearing some product or other.

The stress hormones of adrenaline, cortisol and noradrenaline also impact the function of the cardiovascular system by triggering rapid heart beat and stronger contractions of the heart. These hormones also cause the veins that service the heart to dilate which increases blood flow to the heart and elevates blood pressure. This is part of the fight or flight response.

The reproductive systems of both men and women can be impacted by stress. In men, too much cortisol can impact testosterone functioning and may cause impotence or erectile dysfunction. In women high levels of stress can cause painful or irregular menstrual cycles, either lengthening or shortening the cycle or stop menstruation altogether. Premenstrual symptoms can also worsen or be more difficult to cope with. If a woman is experiencing menopause and is susceptible to hot flashes, these may occur more frequently and be more intense or severe. As in men, women may also have a reduction in sexual desire in response to stress.

Stress impacts on the nervous system are connected to the preparation of the body to fight or flee and over time it is not necessarily the nervous system that feels the impact but what the constant stimulation of the nervous system can do to the body.

As articulated above the impacts of stress on health is significant, and if you are already dealing with physical or mental illnesses, stress can exacerbate your symptoms and make it more challenging to recover. So it is important to take steps to reduce the stress in your life, and build emotional resilience and coping strategies.

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