When we consider the impact of stress on our lives, our minds often go to the mental health aspect. There is no denying the fact that it has been associated with depression and high levels of anxiety. However, did you realize that too much stress may actually be impacting your physical well-being?
Americans are facing a stress epidemic, experiencing higher levels of stress in their daily lives than ever before. While some will point to their personal lives and the choices that they’ve made, it appears that the state of the nation may be at least partially responsible. The American Psychological Association conducted a survey in December 2017 titled ‘Stress in America’, and their findings revealed that 63% of Americans believe that the future of the United States is a significant source of stress in the lives, while 59% believe that “the United States is at the lowest point they can remember in history.” It’s certainly isn’t the easiest time to be American…
The result? Experts say that 1 in 5 adult Americans is living with a mental health condition. To put that into perspective, that is more than the populations of both New York and Florida combined. This is putting an incredible strain on our mental health services, an area that many argue was already flawed and struggling to keep up.
There is, however, another point of concern as our stress levels soar. Not only has stress been associated with a decrease in our overall mental health, but it can also have a significant impact on our physical well-being, and experts are warning us not to overlook just how serious this can be.
Stress is a natural reaction to dangerous or harmful situations in our lives, whether these dangers are real or simply perceived. For example, if you were in a situation in which you were being held at gunpoint, it would trigger a stress reaction. At the same time, however, if you believed that someone was in a possession of a gun and going to hurt you, even if they hadn’t actually said as much and were completely unarmed, it can trigger the same reaction. This is known as our ‘flight-or-fight’ response.
There are different types of stress that you may face over the course of your life. Traumatic stress refers to a specific event like a car accident, natural disaster, or the above example in which someone is being held at gunpoint. Routine stress, however, is an ongoing state of stress caused by obligations in our lives such as our careers or family demands. Finally, there are causes of stress that will arise outside of our usual routine, shaking life up, such as a divorce or losing your job. Each of these is significant, and if they are allowed to build upon one another it may create a crisis situation.
If you use a shortened time of stress in your life as a motivator, it may actually propel you to great things. Therefore, stress isn’t always bad. However, an ongoing state of stress, known as chronic stress, causes the body to experience this ‘flight-or-fight’ response for an extended period of time which will have an impact on various systems throughout the body.
You may not consider the fact that your stress levels can actually impact your muscles and bone structure, but consider, for a moment, the first reaction to a stressful event. In order to protect ourselves from the possibility of pain or injury, we immediately tense up. While a short moment of this will not have lasting effects, maintaining this tense state can result in problems over time including tension-type headaches or migraines and neck or back pain.
As the body redirects all of its focus and energy towards the ‘flight-or-fight’ response, it can have an impact on the overall function of the brain. For this reason, those who live in a state of chronic stress report cognitive difficulties including the feeling of ‘brain fog’ or confusion, as well as a state of memory loss. This is why people who have been through traumatic experiences often forget details of what occurred at the time.
Possibly the most concerning of the physical impacts that stress can have on the body, studies have revealed a link between chronic stress and an increased rate of cardiovascular disease. This means that ongoing stress may actually be risking your life. When the flight-or-fight response is triggered, our heart rate spikes due to the hormones released in the body, causing stronger contractions of the heart and dilated blood vessels. Therefore, the body has to work longer in order to keep up with its regular functions. If this continues over time, it can take a significant toll on both the health of our heart and your blood vessels. Furthermore, chronic stress has been associated with high blood pressure, which carries its own risks.
There are a number of ways that your stress levels may manifest as gastrointestinal difficulties, upsetting your body’s ability to maintain optimal digestion. Those who live in a chronic state of stress report heartburn and acid reflux. Stress can also impact how quickly food is moving through your digestive tract, leading to diarrhea or constipation. Finally, heightened stress levels over a prolonged period of time have been found to increase your chances of developing ulcers.
As our pulse quickens, so too does that rate in which one is breathing. In extreme cases, this rapid breathing may even escalate to hyperventilation. For those that struggle with breathing difficulties or conditions, to begin with, like asthma or emphysema, this can trigger an attack or limit the amount of oxygen that they are able to intake, leading to respiratory distress.
The flight-or-fight response is a reaction to the release of ‘stress hormones’ within the body. This also causes the release of epinephrine in the body, providing you with the energy to run from the perceived danger. Your liver then responds by producing more glucose in order to provide your body with the fuel necessary to maintain this increase in energy, however, over time this can upset the body’s blood sugar levels even leading to an increased risk of Type 2 Diabetes.
Image via Harvard Health